The terms snarl words and purr words were coined by S. I. Hayakawa (1906-1992), a professor of English and general semantics before he became a U.S. senator, to describe highly connotative language that often serves as a substitute for serious thought and well-reasoned argument.
An Argument Versus Debate
An argument is not a fight - or at least it shouldn't be. Rhetorically speaking, an argument is a course of reasoning aimed at demonstrating that a statement is either true or false.
In today's media, however, it often appears that rational argument has been usurped by scaremongering and fact-free bluster. Yelling, crying, and name-calling have taken the place of thoughtfully reasoned debate.
In Language in Thought and Action* (first published in 1941, last revised in 1991), S.I. Hayakawa observes that public discussions of contentious issues commonly degenerate into slanging matches and shouting fests - "presymbolic noises" disguised as language:
This error is especially common in the interpretation of utterances of orators and editorialists in some of their more excited denunciations of "leftists," "fascists," "Wall Street," right-wingers," and in their glowing support of "our way of life." Constantly, because of the impressive sound of the words, the elaborate structure of the sentences, and the appearance of intellectual progression, we get the feeling that something is being said about something. On closer examination, however, we discover that these utterances really say "What I hate ('liberals,"Wall Street'), I hate very, very much," and "What I like ('our way of life'), I like very, very much." We may call such utterances snarl-words and purr-words.
The urge to convey our feelings about a subject may actually "stop judgment," Hayakawa says, rather than foster any kind of meaningful debate:
Such statements have less to do with reporting the outside world than they do with our inadvertently reporting the state of our internal world; they are the human equivalents of snarling and purring… Issues like gun control, abortion, capital punishment, and elections often lead us to resort to the equivalent of snarl-words and purr-words… To take sides on such issues phrased in such judgmental ways is to reduce communication to a level of stubborn imbecility.
In his book Morals and the Media: Ethics in Canadian Journalism (UBC Press, 2006), Nick Russell offers several examples of "loaded" words:
Compare "seal harvest" with "slaughter of seal pups"; "fetus" with "unborn child"; "management offers" versus "union demands"; "terrorist" versus "freedom fighter."
No list could include all the "snarl" and "purr" words in the language; others that journalists encounter are "deny," "claim," "democracy," "breakthrough," "realistic," "exploited," "bureaucrat," "censor," "commercialism," and "regime." The words can set the mood.
How do we rise above this low level of emotional discourse? When we hear people using snarl words and purr words, Hayakawa says, ask questions that relate to their statements: "After listening to their opinions and the reasons for them, we may leave the discussion slightly wiser, slightly better informed, and perhaps less one-sided than we were before the discussion began."
* Language in Thought and Action, 5th ed., by S.I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa (Harvest, 1991)