When Words Matter: The Politics of Rhetoric

Word choice matters. Especially when it comes to politically charged topics.

The malleability of language means that the same concept or phenomenon can be described in multiple ways, and with each variation comes new connotations. For example, you can describe someone who has moved abroad as an expat or an immigrant. The term immigrant, however, comes with many more loaded assumptions than the term expat, thanks to the way the word is used in our media, and the people associated with it.

You see, words are seldom neutral, and they play a huge role in shaping how we think about things and perceive situations. Politicians and media are certainly aware of this, and use the power of words craftily to manipulate public perception.

As we become more and more obsessed with political correctness, as a society we’re keenly aware that certain words carry heavy connotations. Words that have come under close scrutiny in recent years are “retarded,” “gay,” “depressed,” and “mental.” As the implications and history of these words are examined, there has been a shift in how society uses them, and they are frowned upon when used in the wrong context.


Newspaper Headlines via BBC News

Of course, we’re also seeing an inevitable backlash against politically correct speech. The popularity of Donald Trump’s straight-talking, decidedly politically incorrect rhetoric in large parts of the population is one example of this.

Moving beyond politically correct (and incorrect) speech, words are also used in particular ways to frame political matters and mould the way masses judge things.

Politicians, and media outlets, are kings of subtle (and not so subtle) reframing of arguments by simply using different words. Here are some examples of how word choice matters:

Refugee vs. Migrant


Refugees via Flickr

It turns out how you view the crisis revolving around the influx of Syrian refugees in Europe depends a lot on whether you use the word refugee or migrant, and more importantly on the words that European leaders are using. Refugee implies a person has been forced to leave their country and carries legal implications under the UN’s Refugee Convention. Migrant, however, implies a person chooses to move. While by definition it’s a neutral term, it has come to take on increasingly negative connotations, especially in the current climate. Using one term or the other sways opinion in certain directions as it helps build a particular argument.

Undocumented Immigrant vs. Illegal Immigrants or Illegal Aliens


“Illegals” via Flickr

A hot topic in the USA, particularly during this election cycle, is immigrants. You’ll see different terms used by different news outlets, parties and politicians as they try to support their stance. Illegal alien, although a legal term, carries a far stronger judgement than undocumented immigrant. Some go further to talk of undocumented worker, shifting the focus even further. There are movements to end the use of “alien,” claiming that the term dehumanises immigrants, and even protests against the use of  the descriptor “illegal.”

Terrorist vs. Freedom Fighter

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” This quote by Gerald Seymour, so often repeated in discussions on terrorism, emphasises how the same actions are labelled differently depending on what side you’re on. South Africa’s anti-Apartheid armed wing MK (uMkhonto we Sizwe), and Palestine’s fedayeen militants are two groups in recent and current history who have been labelled both as freedom fighters and terrorists, depending on who’s talking about them. Of course, on closer examination of the terms, it’s not always about whose side you’re on, but how you define terrorism and what you see as legitimate resistance.

Enhanced Interrogation vs. Torture

Another controversial topic is that of harsh interrogation techniques. Conversations around detainees shifted dramatically post 9/11 and government’s way of talking about those detained for terrorist related crimes shifted as well. Not only was the term prisoners of war used, so was the euphemism of enhanced interrogation, for what many argue is torture. The term media and politicians choose to use puts forward a definite view, many times with the aim to justify their stance or to convince the population.

Anti-abortion and pro-abortion vs. pro-life and pro-choice

Abortion, also a hugely heated topic, is another topic that is steeped in rhetoric. Those not in favour of abortion tend to use the term pro-abortion to describe those who want to legalise it, while the opposition use the less controversial pro-choice. Likewise, pro-life is used in place of anti-abortion to shift the focus to the preservation of life. The small changes in words on both sides play into emotions surrounding the topic, attempting to steer the conversation in particular ways.

The incredible power of words to stir controversy or soften a harsh topic is something not to be taken lightly. The next time you read a news article, or listen to a politician’s speech, pay attention to the word choice and the purpose of the rhetoric. And if you’re reading in your second language, make sure your skills are sharp enough to catch the subtleties!