13 Emotive Language: "colored words"

Language has great emotive power. There are several hundred names for the most subtle distinctions in moods and emotions, some ranging from the warmest acceptance to the most resolute rejection, others lying in a rainbow from the complicated attitudes of languor, ennui, and indifference at one end, to wonder and dread at the other. Certain names of emotions have even the power to evoke in degree the states they refer to. "Astonishment" raises the eyebrows a little, while "terror" can raise the neck hairs. "Nostalgia" brings a wistful smile, and "regret" a gentle pained expression.

The descriptions of some emotions or moods also convey attitudes toward them. Consider Bertrand Russell's conjugation. "I am firm." "You are obstinate." "He is pig-headed." "Firm" here is an instance of what the linguists regard as ameliorative connotation, "obstinate" and "pig-headed" as pejorative in increasing degree. Yet these three sentences could refer to the identical situation. Such words as "charming," "kindly," "reasonable," at once designate and praise certain qualities, while "liar," "coward," "fool," designate individuals of certain characteristics and in the same breath condemn them. Some expressions when applied to persons are so offensive that it becomes a matter of honor to resist them. This leads speakers to hunt paraphrases for them, so that "bastard" becomes "illegitimate offspring" and "lie" becomes "mis statement."

It may be instructive to analyze the pejorative term "lie," as it occurs, say, in the sentence "S is a lie." This is a simple sentence, yet it is deceptively simple, since it is true only if it meets each of four conditions:

  1. S is false.
  2. The speaker of S knows that S is false.
  3. The speaker intends to say S.
  4. The speaker intends a hearer to believe S true.

Each of these conditions is necessary. We do not say that a man lies if what he says is true, no matter if his intention has been to deceive -- we say he tries to deceive us. Nor do we say he lies, though what he says is false, unless he knows that it is false and does not say it by mistake. And we will not regard him as a liar, though he knowingly and intentionally utters a false sentence, unless he intends to deceive by doing so -- he might be merely employing irony or sarcasm: "Now that was a smart thing to do!" Although each is necessary, these four conditions are not sufficient. They merely take care of the sense of "lie," or the denotation of it. There still remains the connotation. One does not seriously say to a man, "That is a lie" unless one also intends to insult that man or disparage him. For the term connotes contempt, anger, revulsion.

The complexity of the analysis for a familiar term like "lie" illustrates the difficulty of rendering an adequate account of the various functions of language. The expressive and evocative functions are so far from fully explained that the linguists and psychologists have not yet developed any but the crudest tools for investigating them. We hear a little about pejoration or euphemism. We read about "effect modeling" and get the notion that smiling language, as it were, induces us to smile back. Poets talk about a communication of feeling, and propaganda analysts tell of the universal tendency to believe a Big Lie if it is big enough, or the effectiveness of endlessly exasperating a captive audience. We have little reliable knowledge about the emotive function of language, but we have, all of us, a considerable acquaintance with the possibilities. We employ emotive effects with nearly every sentence we utter. "Pass me the bread, Honey." "My, you look swell today." "That old viper!" We choose words in harmony with the emotive meanings we wish to convey. And we observe our own susceptibility to nuance and rhythm and color when we encounter them in the utterances of others. Hans Reichenbach observes, "Language is the most effective tool for interfering in the inner life of others." We use this tool adroitly or clumsily, according to our abilities. Yet we do not understand it. We are like the small boy with the electric train, who knows how to work it but doesn't know how it works.

For our generation, ever since writers such as C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards drew attention to the importance of the emotive function of language, there has been a tendency to deplore the inevitable accompaniment of imagery and rich connotation as a source of error and unreason. The advance of science has provided many models of precise communication, free of disturbing feelings and tone. Writers have felt that political discussion and other whole areas of human intercourse could profitably follow these models. As early as Plato, in fact, objections have been vigorously urged against the tendency to substitute persuasion for rational conviction. Plato and many since his time have seen the systematic exploitation of emotive function of language as an attempt to obscure sound judgment and pervert truth. Yet Plato himself wrote a noble style.

Today the attack on "colored terms" and the "tyranny of words" is often pressed with great persuasiveness and force. Few would wish to maintain the extreme position that every serious attempt to communicate need resemble a logical argument or a bank ledger. Everyone with an ear for language protests measureless and un-rhythmic periods and undramatic arrangement of parts. To say nothing of these subverbal elements, who would wish to deny a speaker the right to choose his language consciously for its emotive connotation? Speeches can be made dull by an unimaginative vocabulary; poetry would be impossible. Fancy transposing:

The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,

The Curfew sounds indicating the end of the day,
The herd of mooing cows walks slowly over the pasture.

Sensitivity to the associations of words is a mark of skill in expressing and comprehending ideas. There are times, quite apart from euphony and embellishment, when the truth can be served only by frankly emotive language. This world has its fools and cowards and liars. Shall speakers always find euphemisms? What polite word should Hobbes have substituted for "fools" in his fine sentence, "Words are wise men's counters, -- they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools"? Label fools as such and don't suffer them gladly. Don't speak of torturers and assassins as "custodians" and "liquidators," or, as Orwell has it, of hate as love, of starvation as discipline, of war as peace.

If a bad ear for connotation leads to absurdity, linguistic cynicism makes a lying use of the emotive resources of language.

Where, then, is the fallacy of emotive language? Fallacy lies in the abuse of the power of words to evoke response. The abuse may occur when a speaker begs the question under discussion by formulas of praise or blame. Or it may gradually arise over a period of time so that no one can say precisely that the fallacy occurs here or here -- as when a speaker excretes an atmosphere of passion in which sober talk becomes impossible. Where there is passion there can scarcely be dispassionate examination of an issue. The angry man cannot easily think -- nor can the flattered man, either.

Lacking a comprehensive theory of language, we can only observe and experiment. We certainly ought to do so. We can begin with one thing we do know: no study of language can get off the ground if it fails to distinguish between the referential function of words and the power they have to convey mood and feeling. Perhaps one who has learned to make this discrimination will begin to acquire some mastery over language; one who has not learned is captive to a powerful trifle.

A commentator harangues the radio audience; "This deliberate plot against the American people . . ." Several of these words have powerful emotive connections. "Deliberate" and "plot" are prejudicial: they do two things at once, describe and denounce, like the word "lie." Incidentally, our own reference to the speech as a "harangue" is also prejudicial. "Harangue" is a word chosen to assure an unfavorable judgment, for nobody respects a harangue.
Overheard in a commuters' train: "Suckers and malcontents are always with us, always ready to support visionary schemes to get something for nothing out of the state. That's the way I look at the Desmond Bill." This is merely name calling.
Comrade Peter, in 1940, wrote of the fall of France as "a prearranged sell-out in this imperialistic war between contradictory forces of the right vs. the right." In 1942, after Hitler had violated his entente with Stalin, Comrade Peter wrote in the same journal: "Martyred France is rising in Resistance to fight on the side of the people's armies of east and west in the war to destroy fascism forever." There are here actual contradictions in the logical material, though they are more implicit than spelled out. But the striking things about Peter's changed "line" is that each position he takes is reinforced with a cynical and practiced choice of terms to produce the emotion desired.
"Governor Jones stands for freedom, integrity and efficiency in government." Emotive responses are pleasurably aroused by these words. Propagandists identify this technique as the "glittering generality."
Real estate ad: "You'll enjoy the hearthside charm of this two bedroom cottage. Lovely neighbors, attractive landscaping. All the built-in comforts essential to cultured living. Priced to sell." Better look for termites yourself.