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Shades of rhetoric: a hot-button word

Much of the content and information found in Oxford dictionaries is provided by the Oxford English Corpus, a database of current English usage that has over two and a half billion words and is fully searchable, allowing shifts in meaning to be observed far more rapidly than they were previously. An example of how this tool works may be found in the word rhetoric.

Rhetoric is not a new word (it has been used in English since the early 14th century), and over its life it has had a small variety of shades of meaning. For the most part, these meanings have been rather complimentary, with rhetoric generally being equated with eloquence, persuasiveness, or a certain elegance in language. Recently, however, the word appears to have taken on less positive connotations, as may be seen through examining it in the Corpus.

Looking at the words that most often are used to modify rhetoric (see the ‘word sketch’ below), we can see that it is often spoken of as ‘empty’, ‘inflammatory’, or ‘nationalist’. Rhetoric is also frequently used in conjunction with ‘anti-American’, ‘anti-imperialist’, ‘anti-Western’, and ‘anti-immigrant’ (and does not seem often to be used with any ‘pro-’  words). Additionally, instances of rhetoric are frequently described as ‘hateful’, ‘strident’, ‘overblown’, or ‘harsh’ .

The Corpus allows us to see the ways that this word and others are changing in real time (all of these examples are from the year 2000 onward), and to assess whether it will then be necessary to change dictionary entries in order to better reflect the changing meaning.

Word sketch of rhetoric

Extract from an Oxford English Corpus ‘word sketch’, showing the words which are used most frequently to modify ‘rhetoric’.

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