word bleg


I’m looking for examples of words that are only ever used in their positive sense. I’m thinking of terms like “community”, “natural” and — in politics, “change.” Despite the fact that there are lots of downsides to communities, that the natural can kill you, and that lots of changes are for the worse, their rhetorical use is almost always as terms of approbation.

Can you think of other examples? Just the words is fine, though I’m happy to see your thoughts on why some words get used in this way and not others; what cultural or political assumptions are at work.

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word bleg

  1. Quality – when used as an adjective, which I'm not even sure is correct, it is invariably meant as "high quality" or "good quality".

  2. Homemade, hand made, etc…

    Organic, Green (when not attached to 'shift' (both are pretty much the same as 'natural', I know)

    Multilateral, bi-partisan

    Historic (either meaning precedented, or of value due to age/tradition)

    Just a few that came to mind – there may be some common negative uses I haven't thought of for any or all.

  3. Homemade, hand made, etc…

    Organic, Green (when not attached to 'shift' ) (both are pretty much the same as 'natural', I know)

    Multilateral, bi-partisan

    Historic (either meaning precedented, or of value due to age/tradition)

    Just a few that came to mind – there may be some common negative uses I haven't thought of for any or all.

  4. Homemade, hand made, etc…

    Organic, Green (when not attached to 'shift' ) (both are pretty much the same as 'natural', I know)

    Multilateral, bi-partisan

    Historic (either meaning unprecedented, or of value due to age/tradition)

    Just a few that came to mind – there may be some common negative uses I haven't thought of for any or all.

  5. In Canada, 'multiculturalism' is always used in a positive sense.

    I think the positive words that you listed so far show how little alternative there is to liberalism in Canada. The words community, natural and change are not automatically positive to me (classic liberal/libertarian) but to many people in Canada they certainly are.

    • I never use it in a positive sense

    • How about "heritage" – to me, it means basically "everything we like about our history, but none of the bad stuff."

  6. "In Canada, 'multiculturalism' is always used in a positive sense."

    You've read Steyn's columns? :)

  7. I'm endlessly fascinated by how we use the terms 'investment' and 'gamble' in our society. They have diametrically opposed connotations but both are almost always used to describe the same thing – throwing a bunch of money at a situation and hoping you end up with more than you started with.

    I have heard the following two arguments made:

    – Investments have positive expected values whereas gambles have negative expected values
    – Investments have small probabilities of significant downside loss, whereas gambles have large probabilities of significant downside loss.

    You can't really have both definitions – would a situation with a positive expected value but a big downside risk be an investment or a gamble? Plus both the stock market (large probability of significant downside loss) and government spending (negative expected values) are both often described as investments.

    Personally I believe there is absolutely no difference between an investment and a gamble beyond one's gut feeling on the spending, but I suspect I'm in the minority.

    • Isn't an investment where the expected (in the statistical sense) return is positive (given what is known to the investor or his belief state) and a gamble where the expected return is zero or negative?

      • That's what I suggested in my first definition – but people don't use it that way. Two examples:

        – Government spending programs with little chance of having a positive expected return are usually called investments.

        – Supposed I offered you the following wager: We flip a fair coin. If heads comes up, I'll pay you $10000. If tails comes up you pay me $9999. That has a positive expected value, but I doubt 1 person in 1000 would call that an 'investment'.

  8. Identity. (particularly in Canadian discourse)

    High tech.


  9. Family.

    And it's interesting that you mention "change." "Climate change" is almost certainly a more accurate description of the phenomenon to which it refers than "global warming," but it might be even less threatening sounding.

  10. Reform

  11. Spiritual

  12. I think it is a byproduct of the rapid evolution of the english language to tie nuances to words to enhance their meanings. Although perspicacious, astute, shrewd and clever could be listed as synonyms, astute is almost always used in a positive sense, shrewd in a negative sense, clever is used in both senses and perspicacious is just too hard to say.

    • If I recall from one of my old style guides, "clever" was once a more apt adjective for an animal, and had a patronizing connotation when applied to people.

  13. Some more nouns and adjectives that are almost always used rhetorically in a positive sense:

    Growth, productivity, diversity, progressive, original, cultural, nuanced, green.

  14. Given my bias, my irritants are ….

    Business is always a "community".
    Labour is always a "movement".

    My experience with both tells me the opposite.

    Industry always have "leaders".
    Unions always have "bosses".

    Oh, well.

  15. How about "tax relief"… a phrase made popular by Republican spinmeister Frank Luntz as a means to demonize taxation as inherently bad. It reflects a modern, stunted view of taxes and their role in public policy (the very view of taxation recently espoused by our modern, stunted Prime Minister).

  16. Privacy (it's rather an unquestioned cultural view to assume privacy is a "thing" worthy of possessing and protecting).

  17. Stimulus, even though it's mostly just a scheme to blow taxpayers' money big time

  18. Enhance(ment)


    Harness (something) — usually thought of as something being used for good or some benefit …

    • Oooh… Harness is a good one.

  19. Human rights (as compared to our Orwellian "Human Rights" Commissions)

    • Or just "rights" in general…

  20. Human rights (as compared to our Orwellian "Human Rights" Commissions

  21. Unity — in the case of the EU, for example, it's the very opposite of positive (loss of national borders, loss of sovereignty and democratic rights, etc.).

    As for Canada, Quebeckers and Westerners will probably agree that unity is not always such a positive thing…..

  22. Authentic

  23. Family. Education. Tradition.

  24. this is good stuff everyone, thanks.

  25. I think "mainstream" is sort of like that, but not quite. It's not so much used to portray the things it describes positively as to portray the things it doesn't describe negatively. But of course, lots of non-mainstream things are good, and lots of mainstream things are bad. (Several of the latter end in "Party of Canada".)

    • I need to know more about how you came up with this before I can agree with its place in the list.

      • Essentially Sean, without advocating one side or the other, while the argument for greater transparency is well know, one could also argue that complete transparency eliminates/restricts the ability for things like informal negotiation, consideration of the full range of (benign) policy/program options, etc etc given the potential for sensational/reactive opposition, media and/or citizen attention that draws negative attention for one reason or that does not include the substantive matters at hand.

        • Yikes, sorry to waste your time – I was making a joke! Not transparent enough in my humour, I guess. :)

          • no worries dude. i read it in a bit of a rush earlier and didn't think about it. it actually quite funny, and, prob more so because i didn't catch on!

  26. progressive

  27. Perhaps more recently, "entrepreneurial" and the ridiculous, though primarily abused by the sophist of advertising, "game changer". The political assumption that the distribution of "the entrepreneurial ethic" is large enough to warrant its breathless advocacy is, I think, a little unfounded, particularly when you look at what's going on in the development economics racket. Some entrepreneurs are, by trade and motivation, socially destructive. I'm reaching, in my fatigue, for the example of the firms or individuals that sit on countless patents.

    And "game changer"! If Ari Gold is supplying the language of our soci-political culture then our soci-political culture is bankrupt. But I'm enough of a realist to know that political rhetoric has a valuable, even potentially pernicious, function, re-introducing the vernacular, closing or opening social mind. I can *empathize* with both sides.

  28. Body building is almost always used positively. I mean, not all big bodies are nice looking or right. At least here in Surrey, BC, Canada, no.

  29. Multicultural

  30. Decisive

  31. Innovation/Innovative

    Hoes this for an example: "An innovative use of pesticide Zyklon B"

    • It's about time someone brought up the Nazis.

  32. Back in my days of learning health-care-as- bureaucracy there were five words that mattered:-

    creative, pro-active , innovative , collegial , collaborative

    If any or all of those words were used in a paper or presentation, it had to be taken seriously.

  33. made-in-canada

  34. How about words that are only used in a NEGATIVE sense?

    For example:



  35. efficiency

  36. -growth (in the economic sense, not when it comes to tumours)
    -in French, there's "patrimoine"

    • "patrimoine" – is it used like "heritage' in English, or is there a different nuance?

      • It's the same thing, but in French it can also refer to tangible things that have no real owners, like fresh water and forests. I was thinking of it in the sense that anything community-owned is part of the "patrimoine" and therefore unimpeachably good.

        • thank you!

  37. Unique.

  38. Justice
    Fair share

  39. "Buy <insert protectionist favourite nation here>-ian."
    "Keep <alleged national "jewel" of a bankrupt business> <insert country>-ian."
    "High-speed rail."