Essay: Watching Out for Loaded Words

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Actually, it does not take much special skill to add emotional baggage to a word. Almost any noun can be infused with skepticism and doubt through the use of the word socalled. Thus a friend in disfavor can become a so-called friend, and similarly the nation's leaders can become so-called leaders. Many other words can be handily tilted by shortening, by prefixes and suffixes, by the reduction of formal to familiar forms. The word politician, which may carry enough downbeat connotation for most tastes, can be given additional unsavoriness by truncation: pol. By prefacing liberal and conservative with ultra or arch, both labels can be saddled with suggestions of inflexible fanaticism. To speak of a pacifist or peacemaker as a peacenik is, through a single syllable, to smear someone with the suspicion that he has alien loyalties. The antifeminist who wishes for his (or her) prejudice to go piggyback on his (or her) language will tend to speak not of feminists but of fern-libbers. People with only limited commitments to environmental preservation will tend similarly to allude not to environmentalists but to eco-freaks.

Words can be impregnated with feeling by oversimplification. People who oppose all abortions distort the position of those favoring freedom of private choice by calling them proabortion. And many a progressive or idealist has experienced the perplexity of defending himself against one of the most peculiar of all disparaging terms, do-gooder. By usage in special contexts, the most improbable words can be infused with extraneous meaning. To speak of the "truly needy" as the Administration habitually does is gradually to plant the notion that the unmodified needy are falsely so. Movie Critic Vincent Canby has noticed that the 'word film has become imbued with a good deal of snootiness that is not to be found in the word movie. Moderate is highly susceptible to coloring in many different ways, always by the fervid partisans of some cause: Adlai Stevenson, once accused of being too moderate on civil rights, wondered whether anyone wished him to be, instead, immoderate.

The use of emotional vocabularies is not invariably a dubious practice. In the first place, words do not always get loaded by sinister design or even deliberately. In the second, that sort of language is not exploited only for mischievous ends. The American verities feature words—liberty, equality—that, on top of their formal definitions, are verily packed with the sentiments that cement U.S. society. The affectionate banalities of friendship and neighborliness similarly facilitate the human ties that bind and support. The moving vocabularies of patriotism and friendship are also subject to misuse, of course, but such derelictions are usually easy to recognize as demagoguery or hypocrisy.

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