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What Is a Glittering Generality?

A. Leverkuhn
A. Leverkuhn

A glittering generality is a word or phrase that carries a strong emotional appeal, with versatility for rhetorical use. Rhetoric is the study of how language is used to appeal to an audience. The glittering generality, as a rhetorical technique, represents a simple and fundamental strategy for evoking certain emotions and reactions on the part of listeners or readers.

The main characteristics of glittering generalities is that they are vaguely worded, and contain ideas that are commonly considered extremely important in a given community. Some of the most classic examples of a glittering generality consist of political terms related to desirable traits for a nation or society. For example, the words “freedom” or “hope,” or even the word “democracy” can be considered glittering generalities in many Western cultures.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Along with words and phrases that appeal to an individual’s sense of freedom, other glittering generalities are often applied to describe individuals. Some of these include words like “courage,” “honor,” or simply “strength.” These glittering generalities are often used to describe an audience in order to flatter a group of people for political reasons.

Part of the theory behind the evaluation of glittering generalities is that words that are used so extensively and so broadly as some of the above, tend to become somewhat meaningless to an audience. This is particularly true as modern societies grow more literate and linguistically advanced. Many experts talk about irony or progressive sophistication in a target audience, where many of the words identified as glittering generalities may have had a lot of rhetorical power in the past, but are now much less useful for those who want to sway the ideas of a group of people.

Some other related rhetorical terms tend to go along with the idea of using a glittering generality. Some social science experts refer to the idea of a “golden hammer,” which, in communications, is a word or phrase that is extensively relied on by a speaker or writer. As mentioned above, these types of phrases tend to lose power with excessive use, and critical members of an audience may consider them to be an indication that the speaker has little of substance to say.

Another term that may be related to glittering generalities is the ideograph. Those who coined this term have defined it as a simple word or phrase that is used in a context. The theory is that the ideograph works to characterize or manifest certain ideological elements that speakers or writers convey to an audience by way of particular word choice. This also applies to commonly identified glittering generalities that tend to embody a popular ideal held by a large number of people.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books