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In rhetoric, loaded language (also known as emotive language or high-inference language) is wording that attempts to influence the listener or reader by appealing to emotion.[1][2][3]

Loaded words and phrases are those which have strong emotional overtones or connotations, and which evoke strongly positive or negative reactions beyond their literal meaning. For example, the phrase tax relief refers literally to deductions that a person might claim in order to reduce the amount of tax they must pay to their government. However, use of the emotive word relief implies that the tax was an unreasonable burden to begin with.

The appeal to emotion is often seen as being in contrast to an appeal to logic and reason. However, emotion and reason are not necessarily always in conflict, nor is it true that an emotion cannot be a reason for an action. Murray and Kujundzic distinguish "prima facie reasons" from "considered reasons" when discussing this. A prima facie reason for, say, not eating mushrooms is that one does not like mushrooms. This is an emotive reason. However, one still may have a considered reason for not eating mushrooms: one might consume enough of the relevant minerals and vitamins that one could obtain from eating mushrooms from other sources. An emotion, elicited via emotive language, may form a prima facie reason for action, but further work is required before one can obtain a considered reason.[3]

Emotive arguments and loaded language are particularly persuasive because they prey on the human weakness for acting immediately based upon an emotional response, without such further considered judgment. They are thus suspect, and many people recommend their avoidance in argument and in speech when fairness and impartiality is one of the goals. Weston, for example, admonishes students and writers: "In general, avoid language whose only function is to sway the emotions".[1][3]



Politicians cultivate the use of loaded language, and often study how to use it effectively: which words to avoid, to use, and to use to disparage one's opponents. Heller gives the example that it is common for a politician to advocate "investment in public services", because it has a more favorable connotation than "public spending".[4]

One aspect of loaded language is that loaded words and phrases occur in pairs. Heller calls these "a Boo! version and a Hooray! version" to differentiate those with negative and positive emotional connotations. Examples include bureaucrat versus public servant, anti-life versus pro-choice, regime versus government, and elitist versus expert.[4]

When Kraft Foods invented processed cheese in the early 1900s, traditional cheese makers wanted the new cheese be labeled "embalmed cheese" by law. The U.S. government considered that term to be too disparaging, and required the product to be labeled "process cheese".[5]

Loaded language is often used by news broadcasters as a propaganda technique, but the desire to appear impartial militates against its use. During the Falklands War, British reporters were pressured by politicians to use phrases such as "our troops" and "our fleet", but resisted, preferring "the British fleet" and "the Royal Navy task force". This was done because domestic broadcast television and radio channels were received by people in other countries; reporters deemed it important that their news reports were considered to be credible and trustworthy by this external audience. Hence they avoided such language.[citation needed]

Following the September 11 attacks, the word madrassa (which means "school" in Arabic) was loaded with negative connotations by Westerners who did not speak Arabic and failed to make the distinction between strictly religious Islamic schools and schools that teach primary education subjects. The Yale Center for the Study of Globalization examined bias in U.S. newspaper coverage of Pakistan since the September 11 attacks. They found the term had acquired a loaded political meaning:[6]

When articles mentioned "madrassas", readers were led to infer that all schools so-named are anti-American, anti-Western, pro-terrorist centers having less to do with teaching basic literacy and more to do with political indoctrination.

Some U.S. public figures have used the word madrassa in a negative context, including Newt Gingrich,[6] Donald Rumsfeld,[7] and Colin Powell.[8]


Psychologist Robert Jay Lifton considers loaded language to be a brainwashing technique: "New words and language are created to explain the new and profound meanings that have been discovered. Existing words are also hijacked and given new and different meaning."[9]

See also


  1. ^ a b Anthony Weston (2000). A Rulebook for Arguments. Hackett Publishing. p. 6. ISBN 9780872205529. 
  2. ^ Larry Lavender (1996). Dancers Talking Dance. Human Kinetics. p. 72. ISBN 9780873226677. 
  3. ^ a b c Malcolm Murray and Nebojsa Kujundzic (2005). Critical Reflection. McGill Queen's University Press. p. 90. ISBN 9780773528802. 
  4. ^ a b Richard Heller (2002). High Impact Speeches. Pearson Education. p. 54. ISBN 9780273662020. 
  5. ^ "Cheese" documentary on Modern Marvels, History Channel (November 22, 2007)
  6. ^ a b Moeller, Susan (2007-06-21). "Jumping on the US Bandwagon for a "War on Terror"". Yale Global Online. Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. 
  7. ^ Rumsfeld, Donald (2003-10-16). "Rumsfeld's war-on-terror memo" (Transcript). USA Today. Retrieved 2008-01-14. 
  8. ^ "Madrassas breeding grounds of terrorists: Powell". The Tribune. 2004-03-11. Retrieved 2008-01-14. 
  9. ^ "Lifton's Thought Reform". Retrieved 2008-01-16. 

Further reading

  • Paula LaRocque (2000). "Loaded language". Championship Writing: 50 Ways to Improve Your Writing. Marion Street Press, Inc.. ISBN 9780966517637. 


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