Semantic chameleon

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A semantic chameleon is a word or phrase with multiple meanings, or no clear meaning at all. This ambiguity can be exploited as a rhetorical tool in the following ways:

  • to construct a fallacious argument that appears true.
    • In this context, the words aere often used as part of a semantic bait-and-switch argument, where one definition is used as a "bait" (to get the audience to agree to a key premise) and the other is used as a "hook" (to force the audience to agree with the fallacious conclusion conflating the two definitions).
    • The fallacy can only be discovered by realizing that the same word or phrase is being used to refer to things that are not equivalent.
  • to create false controversy, fueled by different people interpreting the words differently.
    • The controversy can only be resolved by narrowing down what was actually meant, if indeed some actual meaning was intended.

Such language is especially effective as a rhetorical tool when it appears to reference concepts to which many people may have an emotional attachment. Specific phrases used repeatedly in certain contexts may take on certain associations and become usable as dogwhistles.


See also: category:slippery language