October 11, 2006

On to North Carolina!

So far we've been to the University of California and Yale University, in search of the source of the 12-most-powerful-words list.  Now Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky has wandered off to Duke University, back in the 1970s, in research on, oh dear, Neuro-linguistic programming.  It's still the same old list.  And an actual study has still to be found.

She found four sites. Two of them -- "The twelve words of power" on Everything2.com and "Real Secrets of Coercive Persuasion" on maxxsystems.com -- have almost identical wording (and both are unsigned).  From Everything2.com:

In the 1970's, Duke University's Psychology Department compiled this data after long-term experiments in Neuro-linguistic programming.  These words have been proven to evoke emotion in a listener or reader.

Well, this has a bit more substance than the California and Yale reports, but a search on <"Duke University" "Neuro-linguistic programming" powerful> produces nothing useful.  The Wikipedia entry on Neuro-linguistic programming does not mention Duke.  (Or Yale.  It does mention the University of California, specifically UC Santa Cruz, though.)

The other two sites mention Duke but not Neuro-linguistic programming.  First, there's Mark Joyner's "Do You Believe It When Someone Says, 'I Won't Lie to You?'", which begins:

You may have heard that in the late seventies, Duke University's Psychology Department compiled the top words that have been proven to evoke emotion in the listener.  Since then, the top 12 words on the list have become known as the most powerful words in the English language.

The last one, Dorothy Leeds's "Power Words + Power Language = Powerful Sales" (copyright 1998), takes us to Duke and lists the magical 12 words, but doesn't connect them (and cites no source at all for the list of words with powerful "emotional content").  Duke gets into the picture in her section "Powerful Speech Avoids Passive Language"  (yes! passivity in language again!):

Social scientists at Duke University have been able to pinpoint a specific pattern that identifies powerless speech.  Powerless  speakers use hedges such as "I think," "it seems like," and "you know."  Their language is filled with modifiers such as "kinda" and "sort of."

Say what you think right out, no qualifiers.  You'll be a more powerful person.  Try it.  Now.

Okay, we've now heard from the West Coast, New England, and the South.  Any other regions ready to weigh in with a claim on the magic words?  Middle Atlantic?  Midwest?  Southwest?  Rocky Mountain States?  The Northern Tier?  Or maybe something from Canada?  We're waiting by the phone for your calls.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 11, 2006 07:37 PM