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Rhetoric: postive, negative, or both?

Calling speech “rhetoric” nowadays is often viewed as an insult, rather than as a compliment. Especially in relation to politics, “rhetoric” is used almost exclusively as a negative term.

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” Professor of English at the University of Michigan, Anne Curzan, and host Rina Miller discuss the confusion with the word “rhetoric” in public discourse.

According to Curzan, the historical definition of rhetoric is “the art of using language effectively in order to persuade others.” Rhetoric is viewed today as positive in some circles. It’s an art form for those who can speak well, and persuade others with conviction. However, more and more this former art has been viewed in a more negative light.

“By the 17th century, we start to see some use where people are using ‘rhetoric’ to talk about sort of overblown speech, speech that is big words, but maybe not backed up...from there it gets more and more negative, and I think now you’ll hear people use it to talk about words that seem empty to them. It’s just rhetoric," explains Curzan.

So when did “rhetoric” become so closely, and negatively tied with politics? Anne Curzan says:

“In the 1960’s seems to be when ‘rhetoric’ becomes fashionable,” says Curzan. “But it has continued to skyrocket in usage between the 1980’s and 2000’s…it seems to me that rhetoric can be very negative, where people say ‘empty rhetoric’ or ‘harsh rhetoric.’ But sometimes people use it just to mean ‘talk.’”

Curzan explains that once words transition over to the dark side, it’s difficult to bring them back into a positive light.

“Once words take on negative connotations, it can be hard to bring them back to more neutral one...certainly in academia, the word is still neutral, if not positive, as something that we study.”

So there’s a duality to using the word “rhetoric.” Your most hated politician can spew rhetoric that makes you insane. But on the other hand, your professor can be a rhetorical ninja, fighting arguments with eloquent prose and articulation. When thinking of “rhetoric,” make sure to consider this word’s dark and light side.

-Austin Davis, Michigan Radio Newsroom 

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