The Linguistics of Mass Persuasion: How Politicians Make “Fetch” Happen (Part I)

Stop trying to make fetch happen
A scene from Mean Girls (2004).
FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestTumblrEmailPrintFriendlyShare

Politicians of all stripes and the irrepressible Gretchen Wieners, a character from the cult film Mean Girls, have one surprising thing in common: they all want to make “fetch” happen. That is, in a world of high-stakes politics (high school or otherwise), they’re all trying to make friends and influence people—through the magic of language manipulation. Sadly for Gretchen, “fetch” just isn’t going to happen, but at least the notion of “making fetch happen” (meaning to successfully start a cultural/linguistic trend) probably has—and it turns out politicians are pretty good at it. Throughout political history, scholars have been fascinated by the powerful words—speeches, slogans, catchphrases, and political cant—used by public figures to sway their audiences into massive undertakings, from matters of war to peace to defining the national identity. But can language really be used as a weapon of mass persuasion—and just how easy is it to accomplish?

In the matter of swaying public opinion, political rhetoric can get pretty vicious.

“Language is an important force in shaping the political,” according to Daniel T. Rodgers, who views American political language throughout history as “a field of combat: words are weapons to be used, battlegrounds to be conquered or defended.” In the matter of swaying public opinion, political rhetoric can get pretty vicious. It’s easy enough to trade well-worn slurs and suffer the social consequences. But what we’re beginning to see is that the more subtle the manipulation of language and the more unobtrusive the word-as-weapon becomes, the more insidious its effect on an unsuspecting public.

How to Make Neologisms Happen

So how does this all work? The answer is naturally more complex than we can cover here. Let’s first look at how neologisms might catch on in a language. Unfortunately, we don’t exactly have the secret formula for how to make fetch happen. However, if certain conditions are met, a new term or word sense can have a pretty decent chance of loitering with intent in a language. Linguist Allan Metcalf in Predicting New Words cooks up what he calls FUDGE, a handy mnemonic for the main factors necessary for a new term to thrive in the language:

Frequency – The term should be used repeatedly
Unobtrusiveness – The term shouldn’t be too noticeably weird, so it’s easy to pick up
Diversity – The term should be used across different groups
Generating new forms and meanings – The term should be able to be used flexibly in different ways
Endurance – The concept the term refers to should be long-lasting

“On Message”

So how does this play out in political language, propaganda, and mass persuasion? Public figures like politicians have a huge advantage over the Gretchen Wieners of the world when it comes to making political fetch happen. For one thing, well-known powerful figures automatically have the attention of the public. Mass media institutions, from the press to social media, follow them around, broadcasting, sharing, and reinterpreting their every word, on repeat, even if they actively disagree with their agenda and ideology.

Mass persuasion has to be linguistically unobtrusive.

In the realm of political theater, if you want to “make fetch happen” you crucially have to stay “on message”. As we consume that message again and again, we are also being taught how to receive it. Against the “shock and awe” onslaught of mass repetition, new phrases and meanings are rarely questioned, and are picked up and used without much pushback. However, staying “on message” once meant robotically repeating the same easily digestible party-line slogans and carefully crafted catchphrases. You’ll always have your obvious “cheese eating surrender monkeys“-type political slurs, but can we always track the political intentions behind more benign phrases like “climate change“—a politically motivated term that sneakily replaced the use of “global warming” when our backs were turned? These days, subtlety is key, especially with growing public awareness and a certain level of cynicism. Once this trick of political rhetoric is made too obvious, it becomes much less effective. Mass persuasion has to be linguistically unobtrusive.

Clearly, without mass media to report and shape “the message” and encourage its general use, it’s harder for new terms to catch on. As Michael Silverstein, in his study on the poetics of politics, puts it:

We, the potential electorate […] learn how to listen to and look at political communication […] always over the shoulders of media commentators and shapers of ‘message.’ We have to appreciate, then, how political speech in the multi-layered jumble of the mass media is like articulate noise shouted into a chasm, a canyon. If it doesn’t just dissipate and disappear, it echoes in particular ways as it is picked up and selectively repeated and interpretatively reshaped by a mediating press and other institutions in the public sphere.

As an example, in 2006, media commentators, such as Hendrik Herzberg of the New Yorker, observed the emergence of a new, “ungrammatical” term being used called “Democrat Party”, in place of the official “Democratic Party”. “Democrat”, a noun, was being used as an adjective, which served to sever the central notion of democracy from the party’s name and turn it into a party of Democrats. It was a minute change, but Herzberg suggested that “there’s no great mystery about the motives behind this deliberate misnaming. ‘Democrat Party’ is a slur, or intended to be—a handy way to express contempt.” He attributed the near uniform use of it among Republicans like Frank Luntz and New Gingrich, who was responsible for the infamous 1990 memo, “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” And the mainstream media followed suit, using the term “Democrat” as an adjective rather than as a noun in similar ways and in new contexts, spreading it even further.

Who Are You and Who Do You Fear?

In politics, it’s really not just a matter of ushering in a neologism for the pure joy of seeing language change. You also have to somehow make people want to own and use these new terms. In the political realm, the most successful terms are often noun phrases composed of common words instead of newly coined words. The new terms and nuances being introduced are calculated to frame and control the narrative that’s being told, to deflect opposition and obscure information, to bring up positive or negative images—ultimately to further a political agenda. Somehow, these new terms are chosen, widely disseminated, and instantly infused with persuasive symbolism or emotive nuance that is not always clearly defined—yet clearly works.

Just like brand advertising, political language shapes an audience’s emotional identity by giving them something to be a part of, and something to watch out for.

When it comes to making a new political catchphrase stick, emotions can run high. The subtle rhetoric in these terms seems to almost force a stance on identity and the values you hold. This boils down to two basic emotional systems; namely, deciding which group you belong to and which group you fear. It’s the timeless question of us vs. them. Take note of recent constructions such as “anchor babies,” “liberal media,” “anti-union,” “tax relief,” or the phrase, “the war on terror/women/Christmas/etc.” Virtually any issue can be re-jigged to be more positive or negative. Depending on who you identify with, you’ll tend to use and share that group’s communication styles.

It’s clear that politics has learned a lot from advertising. Michael Silverstein sees branding and political messages as closely related in their abilities to manipulate values and identity.

‘Brand’ implies potential stories, the most important being how people, as potential and actual consumers, project cultural values onto the commodity so as to organize their relationship of use of that commodity.

So brands persuade people to buy them and buy into them (and not their competitors), which also projects a particular lifestyle choice. Just like brand advertising, political language shapes an audience’s emotional identity by giving them something to be a part of (with ideological goals to work towards), and something to watch out for (a competing force to fight against or values to despise). This fascinating linguistic manipulation of emotion and identity is particularly effective in an age where information can be shared across vast distances in a split second, and in increasingly sophisticated and subtle ways.

So in politics, it’s not just a question of making fetch happen for the fun of it. New terms, new meanings, are carefully chosen to exploit your hopes and fears. But exactly how is language weaponized? You may be surprised at how little it actually takes.


In part two, Lingua Obscura will delve deeper into the art of political persuasion through language. (It turns out it involves linguistic cliffhangers…and a leap of faith.)


JSTOR Citations

The Poetics of Politics: "Theirs" and "Ours"

By: Michael Silverstein

Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Spring, 2005), pp. 1-24

University of Chicago Press

Truth Is a Linguistic Question

By: Dwight Bolinger

Language, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Sep., 1973), pp. 539-550

Linguistic Society of America

The Constitutive Role of Emotions in the Discursive Construction of the “People”: A Look into Obama’s 2008 “Race Speech”

By: Carlos Andrés Pérez Hernández

Signs and Society, Vol. 1, No. 2 (September 2013), pp. 273-296

University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Semiosis Research Center at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and Brandeis University

Contested Methods: Daniel T. Rodgers's Contested Truths

By: Mark Olsen and Louis-Georges Harvey

Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1988), pp. 653-668

University of Pennsylvania Press

Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a computational linguist and NLP researcher who tinkers with tiny models and machines to uncover curious mysteries in human language. She has advanced degrees in Theoretical Linguistics and Literature, with a morbid focus on dead and dying languages. She has worked on dictionaries, multi-language search engines, and question answering applications.

    Comments are closed.