Lecture 5: How Do I Say This?

The readings for this week, both by George Lakoff, explain the concept of "framing" an argument. These essays have a specific political point of view, but disregard that; instead, pay close attention to Lakoff's explanation of the way words are used to create an entire worldview--a "frame" through which to present a "picture" of the world.

Note that this is not done in an openly persuasive way. The writer does not say, "Try to use this metaphor to see the world." The writer (or speaker) simply uses a metaphor which evokes all sorts of emotions and associations. If this is done correctly, it is very powerful. As you can see from the examples in Lakoff's articles, it can determine who wins not just an argument but a political election.

If you can become more aware of the language you use (and the language being used on you), you will have more control over your life. You will be able to see how others are using language to control your actions and choices--even the way you think about the world--and you will be able to use language more effectively yourself, not only to get what you want, but to shape your own view of the world.

Words have the power to alienate or ally, to demean or empower.

Emotive Language

Words can have two types of content:

For example, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "police officer" as "a person whose job is to enforce laws, investigate crimes, and make arrests: a member of the police." But in various contexts, the words can evoke strong emotions: those who are angry about police shootings of unarmed civilians have negative feelings when they hear the words, while those whose property or lives are protected by the police have positive feelings.

The words themselves do not contain negative or positive meaning; it's the audience which associates emotions with the words. And all of us will have different responses to words, depending on our experiences, our conditioning, our cultures.

There is no way to erase emotion from language, since language is what we use to express our experiences. So emotive language is not bad, in and of itself. But being consciously aware of how we use words and the emotions they evoke, and how other people use them, can give us more control over our lives.

Here's an example. All of the following lines are headlines from major daily newspapers. All of them refer to the same incident, but not all of them tell the same story:

Which of these headlines is more biased in favor of the students?

Right! "State Troopers Gun Down Students." Why? Because of the words "Gun Down." Those words are different from "shoot" or even "kill." They imply random, careless, intentionally murderous actions.

Another headline biased in favor of students is "Murder on Campus." Why? Because of the word "Murder." This is different from "Shooting" or even "Killing." Murder is a crime, and the word implies malicious criminal intent.

Which of these headlines is biased in favor of the police?

Right! "Cops Forced to Kill in Self-Defense." Again, the words sway your perception: the police were "forced" to kill, and they killed in "self-defense," which we find an acceptable reason for killing another.

What about that other headline? "Two Students Shot in Gunfire Exchange with Police"? That one may seem the least biased, but it really isn't. What do the words "gunfire exchange" imply? They imply that the students were shooting back at the police. Shooting at the police is a criminal act, and thus the headline is biased (in a less obvious way) in favor of the police.

All of these headlines refer to a shooting at Kent State University in Ohio. (Neil Young wrote a song about it called "Ohio." You can watch a YouTube video of it here: Neil Young's "Ohio")

According to Slate Magazine, "On May 4, 1970, four Kent State University students were killed and nine injured when members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire during a demonstration protesting the Vietnam War." You can read the full article and see images here: Kent State

My point, however, is not to give a history lesson. Think about the words used in those headlines. They all tell a different story, and depending on what city you lived in and which newspaper you read, you'd believe something different about the event. That's powerful.

There is, as I said, no way to eliminate emotive language. But you can use language to your advantage--and you can be certain that everyone who is trying to persuade you is doing just that.

Take the abortion controversy, for example. Both sides use language to their own advantage.

The group which wants abortion made illegal calls itself "Pro-Life." Why not call itself "Anti-Abortion"? That is, after all, what they are. But "anti" means against, and that's negative. "Abortion" is such a politically charged word that people have instantaneous reactions to it, and that's not helpful when you want to persuade someone. So instead, they chose to be positive--"Pro"--and they chose something almost everyone is in favor of: "Life." So they are "Pro-Life." Who would argue against life?

The people on the other side, those who want abortion to be legal, call themselves "Pro-Choice." Why not "Pro-Abortion"? Well, "abortion" has unpleasant connotations and associations. So they have chosen instead to be positive--"Pro"--and they chose something almost everyone in this country values: "Choice." Freedom of choice is the foundation of our country. Who would argue against choice?

This deliberate use of language extends to taking about the procedure itself. Pro-Life people call it "murdering an unborn child." They add more emotion into the language--who could support murdering a child? Pro-Choice people refer to it as "terminating a fetus." They drain as much emotion out of the language as possible, making it sound like a simple medical procedure.

Both side are aware of their use of language and have carefully and consciously chosen the language which will serve their purposes the best. J. C. Wilke, who used to be the head of the "Right to Life Committee," once said, "If you consistently use the words 'baby' and 'kill,' you will consistently win arguments."

Make no mistake: words are power. If you are an "employee," you must be paid at least minimum wage, and you may be entitled to other benefits. If you are a "subcontractor," you are not an employee--you are working for yourself, and are not entitled to minimum wage or any of the other rights or benefits guaranteed to employees.

Those who control the language control the power.


Adding emotion into language is one way to persuade people. But draining emotion out of language, or using words that create a different kind of emotion, can be just as powerful.

"Euphemism" are words or phrases that make something sound better than it is. We are surrounded by them--we even use them ourselves without thinking about it.

The comedian George Carlin has a great routine about euphemisms; you can see it here:

Here's a link to the YouTube video directly, in case you can't see the video on this page or you need captions: George Carlin: Euphemisms

Here are a few George Carlin doesn't mention:

We have a lot of euphemisms surrounding death, because we're uncomfortable with death. So rather than say someone "died," we say they "passed away" or "passed over" or a dozen other euphemisms.

Sometimes, euphemisms--especially in the case of death--are used to be kind. People are vulnerable and in pain when someone they love has died, and you want to use gentle words such as "passed to her reward." It would be insensitive to say, "Gee, I was sorry to hear your Grandma croaked last week."

But sometimes euphemisms really are used to cover up the truth or to make the truth more palatable for someone's profit.

When I go to the department store, for example, I am no longer "short." As soon as I walk through the door, I become "petite." There is no "short person's department" because I am much more likely to spend money on clothes if they make me think my height is a good thing.

In the same way, there is no "Fat Women's Department." There is a "Plus Size" or "Women's Size" or "Big and Beautiful."

And before all you men start gloating about how gullible women are, let me point out that there is no "Fat Men's Department," either. Instead, you are "Big and Tall" or "Husky."

We are just not comfortable with our bodies in this culture so we have lot of euphemisms to describe them. And now, we also have politically correct language to describe people's physical characteristics.

I know some of these are going to sound so ridiculous you'll think I made them up, but I promise, I have seen all of these used in one context or another:

There are many more.

My father contracted polio when he was only 6 weeks old (this was before polio vaccinations were invented). He was, as they called it in those days, "crippled." Later, he was called "handicapped." Then he was called "disabled." Then he became "differently abled." One day he said to me, "I want to go back to being called crippled." I asked him why. He said, "They're making it sound too good! I'm going to lose my handicapped parking spot!"

There are also lots of euphemisms used to describe jobs. People are always looking for ways to make jobs sound more appealing and important than they really are. Here are a few examples:

And criminals are not immune: they want to sound better too:

The group that is best at euphemisms, however, is the military. Much of what the military does is unpleasant, even if it is necessary. But in this country, where the military is supported by tax dollars, it is to the military's advantage not to upset the general public. So they have gotten very good at finding euphemisms to describe what they do. Here are a few:

  • Friendly fire = a soldier is accidentally killed by people on his own side
  • Strategic withdrawal = retreat
  • Visual surveillance = spying
  • Inoperative statements = lies
  • Air support = bombing
  • Vertical deployment of anti-personnel devices = bombing
  • Protective reaction strike = bombing the enemy before he can bomb you
  • Permanent pre-hostility = peace
  • Collateral damage = civilian casualties
  • Pacification of an area = killing everyone and destroying everything in an area
  • There are many euphemisms we use all the time. Once you start looking for them, you will notice them everywhere. Euphemisms are not necessarily all bad. But any time someone is using language to cover up the truth, it bears looking at, in case you are the one being manipulated.

    Passive Voice

    One more way of manipulating language to evade the truth is using the passive voice. What? Grammar can be used to manipulate me? Sure it can! Here's how.

    In the "active" sentence, the actor is clear: "I." The action is clear: "smoked."

    In the "passive" sentence, the focus has been changed to the object of the action--the cigarette. The smoker doesn't even appear until the end.

    Just grammar, right? Well, no. Think about how useful this is if you want to avoid assigning responsibility. Little kids know how to do this from birth. You come home from work and look around the living room. You ask, "What happened to the lamp?" Your 4-year-old says, "It got broke." The implication is clear: "I was nowhere near it when it happened. I was in Detroit at the time."

    Sometimes people use passive voice because they really don't know who did something: "One hundred thousand dollars was embezzled from the bank." Maybe they really don't know who embezzled it. Or maybe they do, and just don't want to say the trusted bank president did it.

    The moral of this story has two parts: