Loaded Language: When Words Become Weapons

_superhero_portraits__wonderwoman_by_artisticasad69-d79irccThe last few months have been busy. I went on holiday, became the Managing Editor of a Canadian medical journal, spoke at an editing conference, landed a bunch of new clients, and brought home an Alaskan Malamute puppy. Busy might just be an understatement.

*dusts page, removes cobwebs from corners* 

My head is so full of things I want to write about that it’s hard to choose. There’s the growing acceptance of the singular they. Or the fact that AP Style finally embraced a lowercased internet. Then there’s the debate about getting rid of the period — or the one I attended at the Editors Canada conference about abandoning apostrophes (over my zombified corpse!). And there’s even the news that budgies not only use grammar, but that they also lean toward prescriptivism.

But in light of some of the things going on in our world right now, the thing I really want to talk about is loaded language.

The notion of language as a weapon isn’t new. Sticks and stones and all that, right? But in an age where it takes two seconds to send a tweet, words can cause a lot of damage. It’s bad enough when words dismiss and minimize someone’s experience (he was just a dog; it could be worse; it’s no big deal), but when words incite violence, we should all be scared.

So what makes a word loaded? Well, all words have at least one meaning, which is usually descriptive. A loaded word (or phrase) has a secondary meaning that is evaluative. Evaluative meaning does exactly what it implies: it attaches an evaluation or judgment to the meaning of the word. That judgment can be positive or negative. Here are some examples of positively and negatively loaded words that could be used to describe the same person:

Supporter Zealot
Confident Arrogant
Gentle Weak
Hero Vigilante
Shooter Terrorist
Teenager Thug
Passionate Promiscuous

There’s nothing inherently wrong with loaded words. The problem is that when those words are used to alienate and disenfranchise certain groups of people, the damage can be far-reaching and long-lasting. In North America, for example, the stereotype of the “drunk Indian” has been around for centuries and continues to pop up. Not only is it incredibly racist, but it’s also wrong (research shows that indigenous Canadians drink less than the general population). And that’s just one example.

The good news — and I think we all need some good news right now — is that loaded language goes both ways. We can fight back against the vitriol and hate with positively loaded words. We can be language superheroes, smashing stereotypes with a few well-placed adjectives.


Image credit: faruuk-sama @ deviantART

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6 thoughts on “Loaded Language: When Words Become Weapons

  1. We’ve encountered loaded language – emotive language – recently in the UK, in the ‘debate’ (hah!) about the referendum on EU Membership. Now we’re picking up the pieces of broken government, and already hate crimes are increasing as stupidity (which unfortunately is not an indictable offence) believes it can solve all our problems by sending ‘foreigners’ back where they came from, using abuse and intimidation to do it. So those of us with the guts to do it need to stand up and be counted, and counter the negativity with resounding positivity!

    1. The fallout from the UK referendum was definitely part of the inspiration for this post. As was the debate on gun control in the US. Stupidity and hatred are at a premium these days. We definitely need to counter it with informed kindness. 🙂

  2. You’ve said it so well and such words are laden with racism. It’s something we don’t realize in our mundane conversation or writing. For one, I hate the word foreigners since it’s replete with unintended or intended racism and as it is, we are global humans.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you about the word foreigners — I also hate the word alien, when it’s used to describe other human beings. We all belong on this planet and we should be happy to share it.

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