A glittering generality is a vague word or phrase that's used to evoke positive feelings rather than to convey information. These terms are also known as glowing generalities, empty vessels, virtue words, or loaded words (or loaded phrases). Using them has been described as "name-calling in reverse." Examples of words commonly employed as glittering generalities in political discourse include freedom, security, tradition, change, and prosperity.
Examples and Observations
"A glittering generality is a word so vague that everyone agrees on its appropriateness and value-but no one is really sure just what it means. When your instructor says she is in favor of 'fair grading policies' or 'flexibility in the submission of assignments,' you may think, 'Hey, she's not so bad after all.' Later, however, you may discover that your interpretation of these terms is quite different from what she intended."
(From "Listening: Attitudes, Principles, and Skills" by Judi Brownell)
Sound Bites in Advertising and Politics
"Glittering generalities are used in both advertising and politics. Everyone, from political candidates to elected leaders, makes use of the same vague phrases so frequently that they seem like a natural part of political discourse. In the modern age of ten-second sound bites, glittering generalities can make or break a candidate's campaign.
"'I stand for freedom: for a strong nation, unrivaled in the world. My opponent believes we must compromise on these ideals, but I believe they are our birthright.'
"The propagandist will intentionally use words with strongly positive connotations and offer no real explanation."
(From "Techniques of Propaganda and Persuasion" by Magedah E. Shabo)
"Glittering generalities 'mean different things to different people; they can be used in different ways.' A prime example of such a word is 'democracy,' which in our day has a virtuous connotation. But what exactly does it mean? To some people, it may be treated as supportive of the status quo in a given society, while others may see it as requiring change, in the form, say, of reform of election financing practices. The ambiguity of the term is such that Nazis and Soviet Communists both felt they could claim it for their own system of governance, despite the fact that many in the West saw these systems, with reason, as the antithesis of democracy."
(From "Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion" by Randal Marlin)
"Take the phrase 'fiscal responsibility.' Politicians of all persuasions preach fiscal responsibility, but what precisely does it mean? To some, fiscal responsibility means that the government should run in the black, that is, spend no more than it earns in taxes. Others believe it means controlling the growth of the money supply."
(From "Artful Persuasion: How to Command Attention, Change Minds, and Influence People" by Harry Mills)
"When the orator Rufus Choate derided 'the glittering and sounding generalities of natural right' that made up the Declaration of Independence, Ralph Waldo Emerson made Choate's phrase pithier and then demolished it: ' "Glittering generalities!" They are blazing ubiquities.' "
(From "On Language" by William Safire)
- Brownell, Judi."Listening: Attitudes, Principles, and Skills," Fifth Edition. Routledge, 2016
- Shabo, Magedah E. "Techniques of Propaganda and Persuasion." Prestwick House, 2005
- Marlin, Randal. "Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion." Broadview Press, 2002
- Mills, Harry. "Artful Persuasion: How to Command Attention, Change Minds, and Influence People." AMACOM, 2000
- Safire, William. "On Language." The New York Times Magazine, July 4, 2004