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Linguistics

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What Is a Loaded Language?

By Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Updated: May 23, 2024

Loaded language is wording or phrasing that attempts to influence what people do, think or say by using emotional appeal. The emotional connotation may be either negative or positive, depending on the direction of sway desired. It also is known as emotive or high-inference language, as well as language persuasive technique. This technique does not necessarily contradict logic or reason, but the culture in which a person is present influences whatever connotations are within the language. Although emotive language is present in everyday interactions, people sometimes associate it with cults, mind control, brainwashing, politics, business and advertising due to its ability to influence people.

In terms of function, a person may use emotive language to redefine or relabel something or someone. For instance, if someone calls a person a leech, he defines the person as an individual who clings and saps resources or energy away. Based on these new definitions and labels, loaded language may impair a person's ability to look at something or someone objectively, hindering truly critical thinking and reasoning. A person also may use high-inference language to form barriers or to isolate, drawing clear distinctions.

Loaded language works in part because of the way the human brain is structured and operates. When a person experiences something, the brain creates a memory of the experience that connects to the emotional centers of the brain — that is, the individual remembers not only facts, but also feelings. During new experiences, the brain recalls these memories. The brain is hard-wired to respond to emotion first, as having to rationalize through everything first could pose a serious threat in times of immediate danger. When someone uses loaded language, they depend on this initial emotional response, although they cannot guarantee that a listener or reader will not use the rational centers of the brain to override the emotions that are sparked.

Understanding how the brain forms and recollects memories and how it connects to emotions, the key to emotive language is the connotation behind the specific words or phrases a person selects. Connotations are built based on the experiences and memories of the people within a given culture, so when experts examine loaded language, they have a glimpse into what is present within the surrounding culture at any given time. If a person knows the culture well, they can pick specific words and phrases that will ring major emotional bells with someone else. Using loaded language thus is a way to manipulate individuals to particular answers, feelings, actions or beliefs within a cultural context.

Loaded language comes in three major forms, including loaded questions, snarl words and glittering generalities or virtue words. Loaded questions may be "trick" or "leading" questions. Trick questions make a person admit a belief, opinion or fact they don't hold, or they make a person deny a fact. Leading questions give a clear indication of how a person should respond, with the answer in the question. Snarl words are derogatory labels, while glittering generalities are positive labels.

In looking at snarl words and glittering generalities, emotive language is connected to euphemism, which is wording or phrasing intended to eliminate other words or phrases that could be offensive or hold an undesired connotation. For instance, the word "Nazi" is a snarl word for many people because of the events of World War II and the Holocaust. To avoid this snarl word, someone might use a glittering generality instead, such as "patriot of the German homeland" or "supporter of the people's National Socialism," which are more positive but simultaneously a little more vague. This means that when a person uses euphemism, he may simply substitute one version of loaded language for another.

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Discussion Comments
By pastanaga — On Aug 08, 2014

@clintflint - Teaching children about the intent of the author is important for this reason. They do tend to take things at face value and might not realize that words can be used to manipulate depending on which ones are put in certain contexts.

You can also argue that loaded language is good in some contexts. You want to use it in storytelling, for example, because it can help to influence an audience into a particular perspective without outright telling them exactly what you want them to think.

By listening to a story, though, people are signing up to be told something that is not objectively true, while in theory they should be expecting the opposite from news sources and in advertising.

By clintflint — On Aug 07, 2014

@Ana1234 - I guess it's also important to remember that different people are seeing different interpretations of the same event as well. I'm sure there are some cases where people are outright lied to, but more often the truth is simply obscured, or reported in a way to influence on behalf of one side and not the other.

These are fairly dramatic examples though. Loaded language is used in a lot of different contexts, from advertising to telling a fishing story. Most people know not to take what they hear completely at face value, although they might simply want to believe a particular version of events and choose to find sources of news that agree with them.

By Ana1234 — On Aug 07, 2014

It is so important to recognize that loaded language is found all over the place. No matter how much a source of information tries to be neutral it's very difficult to do this without leaning toward relative judgment.

The worst is when the bias is very slight, to the point where people don't recognize it and simply think that they are learning facts without bias. If a news reporter calls a person a terrorist, for example, that is actually a form of bias, because the definition of terrorism is relative to the situation. If the same reporter called the person a freedom fighter, or even just a soldier people would see the situation in a different way.

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