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‘Boo’ & ‘Hooray’ words
The language of politics

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The language of politics

If you follow the news from Britain, you’ll know that there’s a general election on the way. Elections are always a good time for language-spotters. The last presidential election in the US led to a rush of new words into the language, including Obamamania, one of the top 40 political buzzwords in 2008 according to the Global Language Monitor, along with bailout, climate change and recession.

But a lot of political talk doesn’t actually tell us about anything like recession or climate change. Instead, it is carefully crafted to attract voters. And political language, as George Orwell observed, ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’1 Politicians use a special kind of language, and it contains a huge number of what Jamie Whyte, a New Zealand philosopher, calls boo words and hooray words.


Boo words are things like ‘politician’, words that evoke (and are usually intended to evoke) a negative emotional reaction when you hear them. Hooray words are things like ‘empowerment’, to which we nod in approval. These vary from culture to culture, but in our increasingly globalised world, many are cross-cultural. Try it for yourself. How many of the words in the box are boo and how many are hooray words?


The problem with these words is that, although we can all be in agreement about them being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ things, it’s much harder to agree to the specific details of what we mean. Let’s take empowerment as an example. Just what sort of power do you want to empower people with, and when will they get it? Which people? What will they do with it, once they’ve got it? Who will be disempowered in this process? The word covers an ugly mess of unpleasant detail, but its ability to evoke positive feelings is strong. It’s no surprise to find in the corpus (or a Google search) a host of other hooray words in close proximity to empowerment: spiritual, strength, choice, communities, increasing, transform, success, achieve, self-actualization, to name but a few. And it’s no surprise, either, that the word has been appropriated by new age entrepreneurs to sell products like ‘Crystal Empowerment Oil’ or an ‘Empowerment Ritual Candle’ (both available from Amazon, if you’re interested). Empowermenthooray!


In the UK, Conservative Party Leader David Cameron, talks a lot about empowerment. Here’s just one example from a recent speech:

‘I think the role of government must be to empower’ [green consumers].2

To get into Downing Street, Cameron will have to beat the Labour Party’s Gordon Brown. Unlike many other countries, Britain doesn’t have a mainstream socialist party, but the Labour Party is as close as it gets. Socialist is a word that evokes mixed reactions in Britain, but in the US, the story is very different. It seems that many Americans think that the function of socialism is to raise suffering to a higher level, as US writer Norman Mailer once put it.

Boo and hooray words change their connotations over time. Who knows what socialist will mean 50 years from now? Think about how words like imperialist have gone from hooray to boo over the years. The use of words is, of course, related to the way we shape our thoughts. We tend, for example, to think that recession (going backwards) is bad and growth (going upwards) is good, and it’s hard to avoid the metaphorical framing of these words. It’s easy to forget that some growths can be cancerous.


In the next few issues of MED Magazine, I’ll be looking at how boo and hooray words are used in the worlds of advertising and language teaching. In the meantime, we’d love to hear about boo and hooray words where you live. Here in Brussels (a boo word in British politics!), we have elections all the time (it has been claimed that Belgium has the highest per capita population of politicians in the world). In the French-speaking part of the country, Conservatives call themselves the Reform Movement (reform – hooray!), the Christian Democrats call themselves democratic humanists, and the Greens call themselves ‘Ecolo’ because everyone is green (hooray!) these days. The socialists call themselves socialists.


1 Politics and the English Language, George Orwell, 1946
2 The Guardian, 16th October 2009

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