Loaded Words

Alias:
  • Loaded Language
  • Question-Begging Epithets
Type: Begging the Question

Example:

Probably the greatest American speech of our century was Gen. Douglas MacArthur's address to Congress on his return from Korea. Search all others, read this masterpiece, and you will recall what I mean. Many men are full of good language…. But a truly great speech requires not only superb language but great wisdom and great truth at a great moment from the heart of a great man….

Gen. MacArthur wrote this speech flying in the "Bataan" from San Francisco to Washington…and in longhand…. He could compose it because he understood it. He spoke the truth because he knew it…. This speaker's great calling was liberty. Events full of terror and sorrow were at hand. Here was the needed reminder to his countrymen that the people who were in this war all the way were our men who ennoble the high, sharp Korean walls and live on Heartbreak Ridge every day. And die.

Here was prophecy as revealing as a beacon light…. Here was hope: the dedication that we will live in a world where those of us who are Americans can be proud…. Here was history tolling like an old and important bell: the mighty warning that mighty America, once having entered this major war, must not let it end in impasse….

It was all spoken in less than 30 minutes and in 3074 words.

Source: Henry J. Taylor, San Francisco News

Analysis

Exposition:

A word or phrase is "loaded" when it has a secondary, evaluative meaning in addition to its primary, descriptive meaning. When language is "loaded", it is loaded with its evaluative meaning. A loaded word is like a loaded gun, and its evaluative meaning is the bullet.

Examples
Unloaded Loaded
Plant Weed
Animal Beast

While few words have no evaluative overtones, "plant" is a primarily descriptive term. "Weed", in contrast, has essentially the same descriptive meaning as "plant", but a negative evaluative meaning, as well. A weed is a plant of which we disapprove.

Loaded language is not inherently fallacious, otherwise most poetry would commit this fallacy. However, it is often a logical boobytrap, which may cause one to leap to an unwarranted evaluative conclusion. The fallacy is committed either when an arguer attempts to use loaded words in place of an argument, or when an arguee makes an evaluation based on the colorful language in which an argument is clothed, rather than on the merits of the argument itself.

Loaded language is a subfallacy of Begging the Question, because to use loaded language fallaciously is to assume an evaluation that has not been proved, thereby failing to fulfill the burden of proof. For this reason, Jeremy Bentham dubbed this fallacy "Question-Begging Epithets".

Analysis of the Example:

This is an example of how a passage can consist of loaded language and little else. In reading this, we learn a lot of trivia about MacArthur's speech: that it was written in longhand on the plane "Bataan" flying from San Francisco to New York, that it was 3074 words long, and that it took less than 30 minutes to deliver. However, none of these facts has any bearing on whether that speech is "[p]robably the greatest American speech of our [20th] century". Instead, we get a lot of evaluative and loaded language, but nothing to back up the evaluation. Among the loaded words used in describing the speech are:

  • "prophecy": The literal meaning of "prophecy" is "prediction", but the word is associated with religion and thus suggests a religious significance to the speech, as if MacArthur were a Biblical prophet.
  • "history": MacArthur's speech is certainly of historical significance, but that does not mean that the speech itself is a great one.
  • "mighty": The literal meaning is simply "powerful" or "forceful", but "mighty" is used rhetorically to suggest good or benevolent power.

Sources:

  • Jeremy Bentham, Bentham's Handbook of Political Fallacies, revised, edited & with a preface by Harold A. Larrabee (Apollo, 1971), pp. 139-144.
  • S. Morris Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies (Fifth Edition) (St. Martin's, 1994), pp. 149-152.
  • S. I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action (Second Edition) (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964), p. 292.

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