I know, this is too easy and the question might be too conversational. Still, it fascinates me, particularly since the concept was very insightful and prescient.

I think it was Heinlein, in one of the Lazarus Long books. They had a word that described the "power" or "emotional impact" of a word. A rating system, that was used to alter the impact or emotional response of a story. As I recall, the concept was that word selection was as important as content, and could dramatically altered the perception of a story.

One reason I ask is that there is a story on slashdot.org today, "Data Mining Reveals How Wording Influences Tweet Propagation", which sounds like a real life, real world incarnation of that concept.

Can anyone remember what the word was, the one describing the word rating system?

Thanks in Advance


3 Answers 3


It is indeed Heinlein, from 'If This Goes On'.
TL&DR version -- the term they use is: "connotational indices"

Long Version:

It's from when Johnny and Zeb are discussing the upcoming plans:

'Do you seriously expect to start a rebellion with picayune stuff like that?'

'It's not picayune stuff, because it acts directly on their emotions, below the logical level. You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic. It doesn't have to be a prejudice about an important matter either. Johnnie, you savvy how to use connotation indices, don't you?'

'Well, yes and no. I know what they are; they are supposed to measure the emotional effects of words.'

'That's true, as far as it goes. But the index of a word isn't fixed like the twelve inches in a foot; it is a complex variable function depending on context, age and sex and occupation of the listener, the locale and a dozen other things. An index is a particular solution of the variable that tells you whether a particular word is used in a particular fashion to a particular reader or type of reader will affect that person favorably, unfavorably, or simply leave him cold. Given proper measurements of the group addressed it can be as mathematically exact as any branch of engineering. We never have all the data we need so it remains an art-but a very precise art, especially as we employ "feedback" through field sampling. Each article I do is a little more annoying than the last-and the reader never knows why.'

Zeb gives a basic example:

'I'll give you a gross case. Which would you rather have? A nice, thick, juicy, tender steak-or a segment of muscle tissue from the corpse of an immature castrated bull?'

Johnny then indicates that he could see how it would work on others, but not him. Zeb, of course, rises to the bait:

Now I should know better than to drop my guard with Zeb. The good Lord knows he's tripped me up enough times. He smiled at me quietly and made a short statement involving some of those taboo words.

'You leave my mother out of this!'

Zeb then calms Johnny down, and explains:

He did so and we sat down again. I was still sore and not at all inclined to forget Zeb's unpardonable breach of good manners, but the crisis was past. But he spoke quietly, 'Johnnie, believe me, I was not insulting you nor any member of your family. That was a scientific demonstration of the dynamics of connotational indices, and that is all it was.'

'Well-you didn't have to make it so personal.'

'Ah, but I did have to. We were speaking of the psychodynamics of emotion, and emotions are personal, subjective things which must be experienced to be understood. You were of the belief that you, as an educated man, were immune to this form of attack-so I ran a lab test to show you that no one is immune. Now just what did I say to you?'

'You said-Never mind. Okay, so it was a test. But I don't care to repeat it. You've made your point: I don't like it.'

'But what did I say? All I said, in fact, was that you were the legitimate offspring of a legal marriage. Right? What is insulting about that?'

'But'-I stopped and ran over in my mind the infuriating, insulting, and degrading things he had said-and, do you know, that is absolutely all they added up to. I grinned sheepishly. 'It was the way you said it.'

'Exactly, exactly! To put it technically, I selected terms with high negative indices, for this situation and for this listener.'

  • Outstanding response. Thank you very much indeed.
    – Just4Fun
    May 15, 2014 at 15:57
  • 2
    @Just4Fun: :) Don't forget to accept his answer.
    – FuzzyBoots
    May 15, 2014 at 15:59
  • 1
    Does the story ever actually say what Zeb actually said? I'm not imaginative enough to negate that statement into something insulting.
    – Bobson
    May 15, 2014 at 17:28
  • 3
    @Bobson -- Nope; it's never clearly stated. We can make some assumptions, but we don't know what he actually said. For example, 'Legitimate offspring of a legal marriage' could be said with 'Your dad is a mtherfck*r', and been quite accurate. Given that Johnny responded with 'You leave my mother out of this', it's unlikely that's what he said, but something similar is probable. Heinlein is well aware, however, of the power of leaving details to the imagination :)
    – K-H-W
    May 15, 2014 at 17:58
  • @KHW - Somehow, I'm not surprised. That's a good example, even if it's not a perfect match.
    – Bobson
    May 15, 2014 at 18:00

It should be noted that Heinlein was simply putting well-established scientific principle into a story-line form. That's what successful sci-fi authors do. This particular item is derived from Alfred Korzybski's 'Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics' (1933). The General Semantics (GS) element being discussed is the "semantic reaction".

Heinlein isn't the only sci-fi author to bring GS into stories. Maybe the best known example is A.E. van Vogt's 'The World of Null-A'. (Or perhaps the "best known" would actually be L. Ron Hubbard's 'Dianetics', but there's some strong disagreement whether that should be considered "sci-fi" or not and followers dispute the roots even though Hubbard gives credit in the book. In 'Dianetics, the "semantic reaction" is essentially known as an 'engram' affecting the 'reactive mind'.) Less well-known as an example is Frank Herbert's 'Dune', though it's hardly less well-known in itself.

While GS is somewhat known and partially grasped by sci-fi readers due to Heinlein, van Vogt, et al., the actual contributions in science are usually far less appreciated. The more modern successes of psychotherapy in cognitive (behavior) therapy, neuro-linguistic programming and similar branches are well rooted in GS. Much of modern communication theory can be traced to GS. And even basic elements of algorithmic and computational theories that make this site possible can be found in GS.

The words of Heinlein are indeed insightful and prescient. For good reason.

  • Although very good information, this doesn't actually answer the question, which was to identify the SciFi story that had a term for quantified 'Word emotional value.' This answer is History on where it came from, not where it was used. Although it's excellent information, it does not answer the question, and really should be a comment. (Anything starting with 'It should also be noted' usually falls into this category.)
    – K-H-W
    Jun 2, 2014 at 14:46
  • Probably true, and I don't disagree. But it wasn't "where did it come from" in terms of what story it was in. The question was about identifying what the concept was called, and that does lead to "connotational indices". But that's just the character's (i.e., the writer's) made-up term and doesn't really lead anywhere useful, especially if further searching is desired that explains why it's so insightful and prescient. (Try a Google search.) Going to the underlying science with "semantic reaction" might help. (Compare a second search.) It can't hurt to know some real background. Jun 3, 2014 at 1:33
  • To the contrary; 'where did it come from' in terms of what story it was in is exactly what the question was. Again, I don't question the validity of the information, but it doesn't answers the question -- it answers a question that might be an extension of the question, but was not asked. Hence my suggestion that it be a comment; it doesn't actually answer the asked question, but is nevertheless good information.
    – K-H-W
    Jun 3, 2014 at 1:41
  • To the contrary, the question was exactly Can anyone remember what the word was, the one describing the word rating system? That's why the direct, first-level (and deserved to be accepted/up-voted) answer is TL&DR version -- the term they use is: "connotational indices". Only the OP can judge whether or not it's meaningful to have an actual term for which "connotational indices" is a fictional somewhat synonym. Jun 3, 2014 at 2:00
  • To the contrary; 'Not an answer' is not a judgement made by the OP; the OP can Up/Downvote and accept (and possibly award a bounty.) The Mods and 'Trusted Users' of various levels evaluate 'Not a Question Flags'. The OPs question was what was the word IN THE STORY, not what external concept was it based on. Regardless; I have no desire to continue the argument. Based on quite a bit of experience, I've provided the feedback that it would be a better fit as a comment, but YMMV.
    – K-H-W
    Jun 3, 2014 at 2:47

You can find the story, referenced in the first response, in a book titled 'Requiem', a compilation of short works from R.H. It may be sold on its own but i dont know. Just get the full book. It has transcribed speaches from R.H., his S.O. and many other people. As well as the timeline map of the R.H. universe. Old articles from young mens magazines. Its a well done tribute. The Lazarus Long story mentioned is entitled 'Methuselah's Children'. "Slipstick" Libby notes, sitting with Lazarus in a study, that the newscasters have reported the first overt act of civil unrest in decades, headline using words with an 'emotional index' no higher than 2.

  • 1
    Hey! Mind providing some quotes from the story to show more clearly how it matches the question? That would be awesome, thanks.
    – Mithical
    Oct 15, 2017 at 6:28
  • Sure. Also i went back to pull the title of the story and realized i miss cited in my previous response. The title is 'Revolt in 2100'.
    – Brian
    Oct 15, 2017 at 10:27
  • Excerpt of Lazarus meeting Libby from ' Methuselah's Children' mentioning emotional index of a newscast an address. This is book one. Revolt in 2100 is book two
    – Brian
    Oct 15, 2017 at 10:33
  • 1
    How about you edit them into the answer itself? :)
    – Mithical
    Oct 15, 2017 at 10:40
  • 1
    OK. Please don't post the quotes in the comments here - I get a notification every time you post one, and it's getting annoying ;). Instead, edit them into your answer. Comments get deleted; answers are much more permanent. So instead of posting these all in the comments, it'd be good if you put them into your actual answer.
    – Mithical
    Oct 15, 2017 at 10:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.