Loaded Words

Alias:

Taxonomy: Logical Fallacy > Informal Fallacy > Begging the Question > Loaded Words

Subfallacy: Appeal to Nature

Example:

The Supreme Court has just flinched from its responsibility to stop the unjust jailing of two journalists―not charged with any wrongdoing―by a runaway prosecutor who will go to any lengths to use the government's contempt power to force them to betray their confidential sources.3

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
Loaded Unloaded
Weed Plant
Beast Animal
Varmint Wild animal
Pest Insect

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 the audience reaches a conclusion based on the colorful language in which an argument is clothed, rather than on the merits of the argument itself.

Exposure:

Loaded Words 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:

What are the loaded words in this sentence?

A useful exercise is to take a passage containing loaded language and replace the evaluative words with more neutral words to see what remains. Here is the result of replacing the above loaded words in the list above taken from Safire's column with the more descriptive alternatives suggested:

The Supreme Court has just refused to exercise its power to stop the jailing of two journalists―not charged with any wrongdoing―by an independent prosecutor who will use the government's contempt power aggressively to force them to reveal their confidential sources.

The rewritten sentence no longer packs the same punch as the original; it might be what Safire would have written if he were just reporting what happened, and not trying to sway the reader into being outraged at the court's decision.

Now, Safire was not committing a fallacy in his sentence, rather, he was setting up a loaded logical boobytrap. The critical reader needs to be wary not to be tricked by Safire's powerful language into accepting, without evidence, his judgments. Safire has a right to express his opinions, but his readers also have a right―and even a duty as citizens of a democracy―to form their own opinions based on the evidence. So, I will leave it up to the reader to decide whether Safire sufficiently supported his emotive language with evidence in the rest of his column.3


Notes:

  1. Nigel Warburton, Thinking from A to Z (2nd edition, 2001).
  2. Jeremy Bentham, Bentham's Handbook of Political Fallacies, revised, edited & with a preface by Harold A. Larrabee (Apollo, 1971), pp. 139-144. See, also: S. Morris Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies (Sixth Edition, 2000), pp. 164-167.
  3. William Safire, "The Jailing of Judith Miller", New York Times, 6/29/2005.