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Sticks, Clubs, Wands -
How Do You Know When a Word Is Loaded?




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All are invited:
Officers and their ladies;
NCOs and their wives;
Airmen and their women.

-- politically incorrect party announcement, circa 1970,
by an anonymous Air Force recreation officer who has since retired.

"Honestly, Teacher, I didn't know the word was loaded!"

One of the skills of a writer is to select words freighted with just the right extra connotations to add to the meaning intended -- carefully loaded words. The aim of this exercise is to increase your awareness of this particular word-game. By the end, you will:

1) Be more alert to how other poets are influencing your thoughts and feelings by their choice of words;

2) Be more able to vary the effect of your own writing by the conscious choice of words.

The same object, scene or experience can be described with entirely different effects, by the varied choice of noun, adjective, verb and adverb.


The lost wind moaned in the lone tree.
The soft breeze stroked the green leaves, murmuring.
With a rattle and a shake, the wind leapt among the branches of the looming tree.

We all want to affect our readers. We usually know what effect we want to create. If I am writing a steamy, sensuous passage, and my lover "strokes my skin with skeletal fingers", I've just broken the mood -- unless I was striving for a "memento mori, in the midst of life we are in death" effect.

When we intend to make readers weep in pity, we do not want to hear them gagging in disgust. When we intend to inspire and uplift, we do not want to hear giggling. When we intend to amuse, we don't expect cries of outrage - like the ones that greeted the Air Force announcement quoted at the beginning.

So let's practice.

Exercise: Loaded Words

Note each choice of words in the following passage that helps to build the effect of beauty and enchantment:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree;
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran,
Through caverns measureless to man,
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

-- from "Kubla Khan", by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

We are now going to assault Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Having identified the words that build the sense of beauty and enchantment for you, select a different effect to aim for, and achieve it by replacing the selected words with others that are loaded differently.

Varied effects:

  • Pompous bad taste
  • Pollution and disease
  • Creepiness and terror
  • Silliness and comedy

Or you can think of one - but make it exaggerated.

Guidelines for critique:

  1. Was the effect obvious - and obviously different from Coleridge's original effect?
  2. Were there any inconsistencies in effect - a word chosen, or left, that was not in keeping with the overall tone?

Write On!