I guess I can call them 'politician words' but....

What do you call a word/phrase that has a lot of emotion behind it, but doesn't necessarily have any specific meaning. E.G.: Freedom, Liberty, Terrorism, Patriotism, etc. Speech words doesn't quite get it. Rhetorical dynamite words? Nahh. Sending vague messages to your medulla oblongata to scare you into voting for me is highly accurate, if unwieldy.

  • What do you mean by a word which lacks a specific meaning? Do you mean that, say, most people would agree on what it means, but perhaps have a hard time describing it? Or, a word that people generally disagree about the basic meaning of (and also perhaps have a hard time describing)?
    – jyc23
    Jun 9, 2011 at 0:55
  • @jyc23, I believe Rich means exactly that to which Orwell refers as "meaningless words" in orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit.
    – Unreason
    Jun 9, 2011 at 10:56
  • I always called them trance induction keywords, maybe the field of hypnosis has a suitable word. Brings to mind this video of the Republican Convention in 2004, youtube.com/watch?v=3lDZjiPok3w
    – patrick
    Jun 10, 2011 at 15:43
  • @jyc23 yes, pretty much what @Unreason says. There's no solid meaning. I know red is a color that conforms (closely) to some wavelength, but give me a single sentence on Freedom that everyone can agree? Jun 10, 2011 at 15:51
  • Thanks all. No one answer got all the points i wanted, but @Unreason got the closest, so that answer got the check. Jun 11, 2011 at 17:48

9 Answers 9


I present words and phrases separately as they influence the emotional charge that is delivered in different ways - words are building blocks, but they are perceived in the context of speech figures:

1) word that has a lot of emotion behind it

the first candidate I found are:

  • glittering generalities, which (according to wikipedia) are emotionally appealing words so closely associated with highly-valued concepts and beliefs that they carry conviction without supporting information or reason.

They quote Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language":

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.

However it seems I rushed over the definition; wikipedia states that the term is used for words with two characteristics: vague and positive (see also virtue word)

Following related links you will find: ideograph

  • ideograph
    the use of particular words and phrases as political language in a way that captures (as well as creates or reinforces) particular ideological positions.
    examples: liberty, religion, patriarchy, property, family values, equality

Following Orwell's essay, he refers to such words regardless of if they have positive or negative connotation as: meaningless words. This is, of course in general context much too wide, so rhetorical or political context has to be specified.

The whole article of loaded language (especially related links) might be interesting to you.

If you are looking for a common word, not intending to repeat what others wrote let me list synonyms for the word inflated, just to illustrate how a lot of words might be applicable: blown, blown up, bombastic, declamatory, distended, exaggerated, flatulent, flowery, grandiloquent, incrassate, magniloquent, overloaded, plethoric, pompous, portentous, rhetorical, swollen, tumescent, tumid, turgescent, turgid, tympanic, tympanitic, wordy. This is only to illustrate, inflated is not even my first choice.
Each of these words can describe words that are emotionally charged in some way.

2) phrase that has a lot of emotion behind it

When talking about phrases we should talk about figures. The words mentioned above (democracy, etc) can be very effective in rhetorical figures, but furthermore rhetoric actually can make some of the words emotionally charged by repetitive use of certain themes (which is common in politics).

If you look at classical rhetoric, you will find that all appeals are either:

Pathos, which studies the appeal to emotion, there are many figures, some of which appeal specifically to fear ("sending messages to your medulla oblongata to scare you into voting"):

  • perclusio, a threat against someone, or something
  • cataplexis, threatening or prophesying payback for ill doing
  • exuscitatio, does not appeal to fear directly, but tries to stir anger

these are figures from classical rhetoric but maybe the subject of propaganda is more pertinent for your question. I see rhetoric as "the art and study of the effective use of language" i.e. something that everyone does, where propaganda is type of communication that chooses any means to "influence the attitude of a community".

The techniques employed in propaganda are often based on fear. To illustrate let me list a few:

  • appeal to fear, "Voting for him is the same as voting for the terrorists."
  • fud, fear, uncertainty and doubt
  • name calling can be used to raise prejudice and start fear
  • obtain disproval links to defamation (calumny, vilification, traducement, slander/libel) used for suggesting that the idea is popular with groups hated, feared, or held in contempt by the target audience

Maybe I have expanded the phrases section too much and it can be seen not relevant to the question, however I wanted to stress the idea that for glittering generalities, ideographs and meaningless words their loaded or charged aspect is actually created through rhetoric overly appealing to emotions (or through propaganda).

NOTE: Not directly related, but potentially interesting read is also the godwin faq.

  • Interesting, I like that Orwell thought about this too. Jun 9, 2011 at 21:09

Charged words.

That's the term.


You are talking about inflammatory rhetoric, which describes vague, emotionally charged, but essentially empty words and phrases that are used to influence or persuade an audience.

There is also a word like emotive or undescriptive that means that a term is just an empty word (or phrase). I know this word; I have used it to describe "fundamentalism" and "terrorism," but I cannot for the life of me think of it. I have been wracking my brains for hours. Maybe this teaser will help someone else think of it. I shall continue to think on it.

Edit: I think it may be "trivial label" that I'm trying to think of, but this seems to be missing the provocative, inflammatory aspect. I'll keep thinking.

Edit: A "contrived" or "spurious" is closer to what I'm trying to remember, but I don't think that is quite it either.

Edit: I've just remembered that "baseless" or "unfounded" was the adjective I used, but I'm still trying to think of the noun.

Edit: I've finally remembered the phrase I used to describe "fundamentalism" and "terrorism." I had described them as weasel words. This phrase doesn't have the meaning you are looking for, but for the sake of completeness (and my own peace of mind), I include it here since I mentioned it earlier.

  • +1, but I think just rhetoric or rhetoric words would suffice: (from NOAD) • language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content Jun 9, 2011 at 1:57
  • I used inflammatory because of the "emotionally charged" aspect. Maybe I was using a little rhetoric of my own?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Jun 9, 2011 at 2:00
  • @Callithumpian, rhetoric can be used here, but the meaning is really too wide and not specific enough. Even if you disregard the fact that part of rhetoric which is concerned with pathos (figures of logos are meaningful and figures of ethos can actually try to establish sincerity) is only small part of it, OP looks for words and phrases that are deliberately vague, while they still have emotional impact. In inflammatory rhetoric or rhetoric or rhetoric words you are sure to find terms which are not vague.
    – Unreason
    Jun 9, 2011 at 12:09
  • I have the similar feeling, that there is a nice and relatively common word; I notice one aspect though - all the words in the example could be called ideological.
    – Unreason
    Jun 9, 2011 at 12:12

I normally call them loaded words in informal contexts, or value-laden terms if I want to sound more knowledgeable than I really am.


When I think of words like that, what comes to my mind is Dog-whistle politics:

a term for a type of political campaigning or speechmaking which employs coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has a different or more specific meaning for a targeted subgroup of the audience. The term is invariably pejorative, and is used to refer both to messages with an intentional subtext, and those where the existence or intent of a secondary meaning is disputed. The term is an analogy to dog whistles, which are built in such a way that the high-frequency whistle is heard by dogs, but appears silent to human hearing.



These words are evocative

Bringing strong images, memories, or feelings to mind


Not a term for the words themselves, but this type of speech I call demagoguery.


Another common term would be trigger words. The only online definition I can find is not very apt, but this article on the psychology of Word Association suggests that is a reasonable match to the question.


How about abstractions?
Check out this definition of abstraction from Century Dictionary via Wordnik:

The act of abstracting or concentrating the attention on a part of a complex idea and neglecting the rest or supposing it away; especially, that variety of this procedure by which we pass from a more to a less determinate concept, from the particular to the general.

  • I thought of this too, but abstractions are everywhere, I thought this was too general Jun 9, 2011 at 21:14

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