‘What’s in a name?’ Voldemort might ask. ‘A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.’
But would it? Would a Blose™, with a smell to ‘blow you away’ and a price-tag of three hundred roses, smell just as sweet? No, of course not. Objectively it might, but while human beings are plenty of things, rarely is one of those objective. However, we’re extremely skilled at manipulation, as the following simple steps will show.
1. Change the Name
Our ability to become predisposed towards something based on its packaging is familiar to anyone who has regifted something in nice shiny wrapping, but there are times when the power of a name change really stands out. Wine served in an expensive bottle, for example, will typically be rated higher than one of a lesser known brand – even if it is the same wine (see this New Yorker article for the damning results).
But perhaps wine tasting is a problematic example. Maybe it would be more valuable to look at political issues instead: say, the difference between ObamaCare and the Affordable Care Act.
While taking to the streets isn’t always the best way to find informed opinions, it is still enlightening that many of those polled preferred the Affordable Care Act over ObamaCare, despite it being the same thing. Their justifications point to the Affordable Care Act being, among other things, fairer, more American, and yes, more affordable.
“Just the name says it all,” says one street pollster. Indeed.
2. Consider How It Is Phrased
Boat people/illegal immigrants/queue jumpers/asylum seekers. This obviously isn’t the place for political debate, but even if it was, we would have to decide between half a dozen different terms before we could even agree on what we were talking about. Like two warring nations, we’d have to meet on common soil – assuming that I allowed you in. A person’s choice of phrasing can change how you view the issue or topic at hand, but, at the same time, you can use this to identify their own biases.
3. Consider the Formula
There are some words that have appeared in a specific context so many times that they immediately carry with them the weight of that context. When I say ‘pre-emptive’ you say – ‘strike’. When I say ‘working class’ you say ‘families’. (Note: -5 points if you said ‘man’ – your inherent predisposition to that word implies you think only men can work).
Seeing something familiar immediately makes you predisposed to accept it if you’ve accepted it in the past. This is shown time and again online. Have you ever wondered about the crazy world of online articles? Here’s Five Ways You’d Never Guess How Easily You’re Being Manipulated. Read More to Find Why These Eight Shocking Reasons Will Change the Way You Read Headlines Forever.
4. Consider Who’s Saying It, and How
“Hello, I’m a doctor. You can tell because I’m on television, wearing a lab coat and speaking in a calm and respectable voice. Now you’ve heard, in my calming and respectable voice, that I’m a doctor, let me tell you about cosmetics.”
The delivery of words is almost as important as the words themselves. A quote in a newspaper from Gary ‘Gazza’ Shawtae is going to suddenly hold a lot more weight if it’s printed with a PhD after his name. Likewise, you are more likely to read an issue in a professionally printed, peer-reviewed journal than a poorly spelled pamphlet thrust at you in the street.
5. Consider the Lobster
Playing with form and what is expected is quite nicely done in Junkee’s ‘An Opinion Piece On A Controversial Topic’. This satirically exposes language techniques and typical ways people use language for various effects.
6. Divide & Conquer (Combine & Rephrase)
Here, hold this for a second, it’s the word pro, everyone loves ‘pro’, from basketball players to the common man who likes to really stand for things, you know? Now if you’ll just hold that tight, I’m going to push life against it; oh, of course you know ‘life’, it’s one of the better words we have, everyone wants to feel it. Yeah just like that, I have to wriggle it a bit. But now we have an even better word! Look at it. Who could possibly not support this? You would have to be anti-life. Can you imagine what kind of monster you would be?
Of course, the alternative is ‘pro-choice’, but by the sheer weight of words it isn’t as powerful. Notice how neither of these sides want to be ‘anti-’. ‘Anti’, even before it’s attached to anything, has negative connotations associated with it. For a long time, people have known it sounds better to be for something than against it.
In the interests of fair debate, below is an example of how this same sentiment is explored by angry American conservatives:
In the process, abortion became choice, a term that not only distorts what actually happens during an abortion, but turns the discussion away from killing babies to supporting women’s rights. The new term was well chosen, particularly if your purpose is to deceive. After all most people want to be in control of their lives, to be able to make choices. Liberals want abortion to be about a woman’s right to choose, but they don’t want to talk about what that choice really means, nor do they want to admit that the unborn child has no say in the choice.
— From Patriot Update
But even the idea of ‘conservatives’ versus ‘liberals’ is weighed down with an entire nation’s worth of connotations.
Language is constantly changing in a way that’s awful. What balderdash! you ejaculate, but I promise you that language is entirely artificial. Through the bane of linguists – common usage – words transform over time, occasionally even becoming the exact opposite of what they originally meant. Sometimes it’s not as obvious as that, but you may have noticed how information seems to be leaking a lot lately, or that there have been a lot of special interests without it ever being said who the interested parties are or what makes them special. It’s not even worth bemoaning what happened to the two words that were shanghaied into meaning ‘national security’.
Effectively, in changing the way we attribute new meaning to old words, there is a repurposing of mental connections, a deliberate rerouting of neural traffic. Having the word already in our minds reduces the sense of the unfamiliar, and once enough people start accepting the change, the job is done.
The strangest political repurposing to me is when ‘sympathy’ becomes ‘sympathiser’. Not simply ‘one who is sympathetic’, a ‘sympathiser’ becomes ‘a traitor to our cause who feels for the other side where no such feeling should be allowed or even entertained’.
8. Everything Else Not Working? Create New Words.
That old alarmist George Orwell wasn’t entirely wrong when he said, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
Our modern invented words, in an attempt to synergise and accessiblise, are nothing short of corruptions themselves. In response to the growing complexities of our generation, we’ve decided to boil everything down into a kind of Newspeak of jargon, acronyms or just really simple words. In order to value-add to a word’s deliverables, we’ve drawn a hard line on substance, which we’re hoping will incentivise and upskill the next gen so we can blue-sky it all the way.
The rest of the Orwell quote is equally as relevant. “A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”
As might have been said in that famous book about the wizards: ‘It’s the words Harry, not how you go about waving the stick.’
Rafael S. W. is a graduate of creative writing and one of the founding members of Dead Poets’ Fight Club. He writes every single day and has been published in Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging No. 33, the current print/audio edition No. 35, and Dot Dot Dash. He also competes in poetry slams and giant-sized chess games.