Power & Deception – Language the Loaded Weapon by Dwight Bolinger 1980

The central idea of the essay is exploring how language is used to deceive people. This includes by lying, withholding the truth, using euphemism and dysphemism, manipulation of word meanings and avoiding using certain words.

For example in advertising, certain words are avoided as they conjure up a bad image: ‘fun size’ is used instead of ‘small’ as ‘small’ suggests that you are getting something inferior, less than you wanted. Also the word ‘rinse’ is used instead of ‘dye’ as people are reluctant to admit that they dye their own hair due to the negative reputation it has, therefore ‘rinse’ sounds more appealing.

Additionally, in the food industry, the adjective ‘natural’ can be used as a wide range of produce could be classed as ‘natural’. It deceives the consumer into thinking that what they’re buying is good for them, however once ‘100% natural fibre’ turned out to be wood pulp added to bread.

In surveys, words can be used to deceive and mislead the survey taker. In a survey about a car crash, the word ‘hit’ had a different connotation to the word ‘smash’ therefore when the word ‘smash’ was used in the question, the people remembered the crash a lot worse than when the word ‘hit’ was used.

Six important quotations:

Advertising requires no microscope. Its euphemisms add up to a world of promise grander than life’. Advertising can get away with deceiving the consumer by using euphemisms, and as long as they are not lying about the product, they do not come under scrutiny. The consumer can be manipulated by using certain words to create a positive image of the product, glossing over it’s flaws, to help it sell.

The military of course only have to work harder because they have so much to tone down’. This refers to the military using certain words to convince people that what is occurring isn’t as bad as it is and to keep morale high. For example ‘dead bodies’ are referred to as ‘casualties’ or ‘fatalities’, which deceives people into thinking that these deaths are simply a side effect of war.

collateral damage” – modern example

A device similar to the missing agent in a passive is the missing conclusion in a comparative construction’. In advertising, advertisers can get away with saying that a product is, for example, ‘better’ or ‘quieter’ than another unspecified object. Not specifying what the product is ‘better’ than allows the advertiser to deceive the customer, without actually lying. (Ford Example – the ford car is “500% quitter” – but than what? Other cars? No. Than the outside.)

syntactic functions of elements in the sentence can be used to partisan advantage’. This refers to how the word order of a sentence can be used to deceive the reader. ‘Bike collides with car’ suggests that the cyclist is at fault, whereas ‘car collides with bike’ places the blame on the driver. Although the collision was mutual, the word order can be manipulated to place the blame on one party.

Euphemism is everyman’s sin. Dysphemism is more selective’. Although there is little bad naming in advertising, there is a great deal of it in politics, for example. Words are used to de-humanise certain groups of people. For example in WW2, Hitler referred to the Jews as ‘creatures’, to create an image of them as parasites, vermin etc. This manipulated many peoples opinion of Jews.

It’s hard to draw the line between euphemism and mystification’. It can be difficult to tell whether someone is just using euphemism or is purposely misleading you in order to get what they want.

Literalism is a common safeguard in commercial advertising and labelling” – implies that literalism is used to hide the truth in advertising by tricking the reader. The author here is informing the reader how literalism is used to alter the viewer’s perceptions.

Literalism is also a smokescreen” – The author here again is implying that it is used to trick the reader as a distraction technique.

Crafted for manufactured” – The author here is explaining how certain synonyms are used interchangeably in order to delude the public that, in this case, something has been carefully and lovingly made by hand.

Euphemism is everyman’s sin. Dysphemism is more selective” – Here I believe the author is suggesting that since dysphemism’s allow people to convey how they truly feel regarding a particular subject, it is better in comparison to euphemisms which create a smokescreen

Loaded words can influence memory as well as perception” – He implies that words of similar denotations yet different connotations. He continues by providing an example.


I do think the author puts forward a convincing argument and it enlightened me as to how my views and opinions can be manipulated by the words used, the word order, or even how it is said. People may argue that the author is looking too deeply into the language used, and that the public cannot be swayed so easily, however I believe this kind of subtle manipulation of thoughts using language is very prevalent in our society, particularly by advertising and the media.

Key Questions for PC

  • If language can be used to manipulate us – e.g. buy a car we don’t need – then surely language can be used to create a more positive and respectful society.
  • Is political correctness a matter of obfuscation? i.e. is it like using euphemisms to disguise what we are talking about? Is PC a lie?
  • Language is meant to facilitate a clear description of how things are – but can it ever be truly objective / fully transparent?
  • The speaker / writer always has an agenda – is PC just another layer of bias making communication difficult?

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