In rhetoric, loaded language (also known as loaded terms or emotive language) is wording that attempts to influence an audience by using appeal to emotion or stereotypes. Such wording is also known as high-inference language or language persuasive techniques.
Loaded words and phrases have strong emotional implications and involve strongly positive or negative reactions beyond their literal meaning. For example, the phrase tax relief refers literally to changes that reduce the amount of tax citizens must pay. However, use of the emotive word relief implies that all tax is an unreasonable burden to begin with. Another example of loaded language is the question "Do you really want to associate with those people?", which implies a sense of disapproval from the speaker.
Loaded terms, also called emotive or ethical words, were clearly described by Charles Stevenson. He noticed that there are words that do not merely describe a possible state of affairs. "Terrorist" is not used only to refer to a person who commits specific actions with a specific intent. Words such as "torture" or "freedom" carry with them something more than a simple description of a concept or an action. They have a "magnetic" effect, an imperative force, a tendency to influence the interlocutor's decisions. They are strictly bound to moral values leading to value judgments and potentially triggering specific emotions. For this reason, they have an emotive dimension. In the modern psychological terminology, we can say that these terms carry "emotional valence", as they presuppose and trigger a value judgment that can lead to an emotion.
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. Authors R. Malcolm Murray and Nebojša Kujundžić 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.
Emotive arguments and loaded language are particularly persuasive because they exploit the human weakness for acting immediately based upon an emotional response, without such further considered judgment. Due to such potential for emotional complication, it is generally advised to avoid loaded language in argument or speech when fairness and impartiality is one of the goals. Anthony Weston, for example, admonishes students and writers: "In general, avoid language whose only function is to sway the emotions".
Politicians cultivate loaded language, and often study how to use it effectively: which words to use or avoid using to gain political advantage or disparage an opponent. 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".
One aspect of loaded language is that loaded words and phrases occur in pairs, sometimes as political framing techniques by individuals with opposing agendas. 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-choice versus pro-life, regime versus government, and elitist versus expert.
The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning.
- Weston 2000, p. 6.
- Murray & Kujundzic 2005, p. 90.
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- Heller, Richard (2002). High Impact Speeches. Pearson Education. p. 54. ISBN 978-0-273-66202-0.
- Macagno, Fabrizio; Walton, Douglas (2014). Emotive Language in Argumentation. New York: Cambdridge University Press.
- Murray, Malcolm; Kujundzic, Nebojsa (2005). Critical Reflection. McGill Queen's University Press. p. 90. ISBN 978-0-7735-2880-2.
- Orwell, Geoge (1946). "Politics and the English Language". Horizon. April. Archived from the original on 2012-01-30.
- Stevenson, Charles (1937). "The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms". Mind. 46: 14–31.
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- Stevenson, Charles (1944). Ethics and Language. Connecticut: Yale University Press.
- Weston, Anthony (2000). A Rulebook for Arguments. Hackett Publishing. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-87220-552-9.
- Walton, Douglas; Macagno, Fabrizio (2015). "The Importance and Trickiness of Definition Strategies in Legal and Political Argumentation". Journal of Politics and Law. 8 (1): 137–148.