Half-way into the first decade of the 21st century, elections were scheduled in three major nations: the US, the UK and Australia. Reading about these in the media, I was struck by the repeated occurrence of the phrase “glittering generalities" referring to a technique of canvassing adopted by politicians.

Though the term appeared new to many of us, it had been used by Abraham Lincoln in 1859. He sent a letter to Henry L. Pierce in which he said the opposition was deriding Jefferson’s principles as glittering generalities. The term became widely known after the Institute for Propaganda Analysis listed it as one of the seven techniques of propaganda.

V.R. Narayanaswami

Glittering generalities have two features. They are vague and often ambiguous, and the listener receives the sense that is close to his own perception of the word. Second, they are positive words, sometimes called virtue words. The listener almost instinctively trusts the source. Here are some examples: family values, birth right, democracy, caring society, honour and freedom. Many of these are abstract nouns with a penumbra of meaning that is hard to spell out.

In major speeches, like the Republic Day speech in India or the inauguration speech of the US president, there will be a liberal supply of virtue words. Obama’s yes-we-can speech bristled with such words: justice and equality, opportunity and prosperity and heal this nation.

When a politician says, “we should cherish and protect our democratic values," the listener is swayed by the positive connotation of the words. Democracy is a trusted value, a treasured concept. But democracy means different things to different people and the speaker conceals the proposed meaning. Starting with the Gettysburg definition, you could focus on any of the three prepositions, of, by and for, and come up with three different definitions.

In a broad sense, any country that chooses its government by voting for it in elections can be considered democratic. But within this there are many possibilities. Who is qualified to vote? Is there discrimination on the basis of sex, education, or age? When a speaker uses democracy as a generality, these questions disappear. Blind acceptance is what we see.

Many analysts have linked glittering generality to George Orwell’s ideas in the essay Politics and the English Language. Orwell fulminated against the debasement of the English language. He wrote: “Political writing and speech are largely the defence of the indefensible."

A common word with positive connotations is “family". Politicians find that a reference to family values brings its rewards. One of the virtue words that politicians exploited during the last decade was “hardworking families". This phrase was widely used during the elections in the UK in 2005 and in the US and Australia in the following years. In his famous yes-we-can speech, Obama referred to the plight of “hardworking Americans who struggled with costs that were growing," and “innocent hardworking Americans holding the bag".

In England too, “hardworking families" was seen as a glittering generality. A BBC report online said: “It is rapidly becoming the most overused phrase of the 2005 election." Family and family values are cherished phrases and evoke an emotional response. How do you identify a hardworking family? Do you mean a family that works hard and does not depend on benefits from the government, or a family that works hard but needs support from the government at the same time? Is the definition related to the number of children in the family? Interviewed on TV, a mother of eight asked: “Why should people with lower incomes be prevented from having children? We are not living in China..."

As in political discourse, glittering generalities play a significant role in shaping people’s opinions through advertising. But that discussion calls for a separate column.

V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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