It’s something many of us in MarComm have heard about and read about for years now: Which words are the most persuasive ones in the English language?
In fact, it’s been the topic of entire news articles since the 1960s.
The words in question sound just about as relevant today as they must have back when the first “definitive” list was published:
It’s a solid list … and it certainly seems like these words would be among the most persuasive ones in our language.
It’s also plausible that some sort of formal “research” would have been conducted to come up with the list in the first place.
But that doesn’t appear to be the case at all. In fact, it seems more likely that the list was dreamed up on the back of a napkin by an advertising copywriter looking for an interesting new copy “angle.”
Allegedly, the first appearance of the English language’s most persuasive words was in a trade publication called “Marketing Magazine.” But no evidence exists that such a publication ever really existed.
Instead, it appears that several businesses decided to publish a list of persuasive words as a way of promoting their own products and services. Attributing the list of words to a third-party (fictitious) publication with an authentic-sounding name gave their promotional messages an added flavor of credibility.
The list appeared first in a New York Times advertisement in 1961, and it was picked up several months later for an ad run in the Washington Post by Levitt & Sons, a real estate developer (of Levittown fame) that was promoting its new Maryland-based Belair at Bowie development at the time.
Both ads touted the elusive “Marketing Magazine” as the source for the list of most persuadable words.
And then the group of words began to morph, as “lists” of this kind are wont to do. More “experts” got into the game … more words were switched out or added … and more sources were cited as being the wellspring of the research: Duke University; the University of California; Yale University’s Psychology Department (!).
But who really cares about the provenance of the list? As it turns out, these “persuade” terms are among the most popular ones that advertising copywriters have used for years. And for the most part, the terms retain their power to persuade, 50 years on.
For the record, other words that have made it onto the list at various times include:
Regardless of which words actually belong on a “Top Ten” list as opposed to being the runners-up, there’s one thing you can say about all of them: They’re oldies but goodies.
And this, too: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)
4 thoughts on “Persistent Myth: The Ten Most Persuasive Words in the English Language”
What about the word “imagine”?
Somewhere in the dank corners of my memory I seem to recall somebody placing “imagine” in the pantheon of magically persuasive words. Was it Tony Schwartz in “The Responsive Chord”?
Here’s another one: “sex.”
Basic words that cut across all demographics and have a clear meaning are best. Words like ‘state of the art’ don’t work because of the unclear meaning behind it. “NEW” is just that.
Just keep it simple!
[…] Persistent Myth: The Ten Most Persuasive Words in the English Language (December 9, 2012) If you add up the words on all the lists, it’s a lot more than ten … […]