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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

dog whistle

(2000’s | journalese (politics) | “coded (signals),” “speaking to people in their own language,” “telling people what they want to hear”)

In its figurative political sense, “dog whistle” first began to turn up in quantity around 2000, primarily in the Australian press. When used down there, it was generally identified as an American expression. I’m not saying they were wrong — though in 2005, William Safire quoted an Australian reporter suggesting that the phrase may have originated in Australia after all — but LexisNexis coughs up precious few examples in America, or anywhere else, before 1995. None, really; the Washington Post defined the “dog whistle effect,” a pollster’s term, in 1988: “Respondents hear something in the question that researchers do not.” (I’m not sure if this remains a technical term in polling.) In 1995, a House Republican spake thus of Newt Gingrich: “When Newt and the others would talk about what was possible, it was like a dog whistle. Some people heard it and some people didn’t. If you were tuned into that frequency it made a lot of sense.” And that, of course, is the essence of the dog whistle. One group gets it full force and the others are blissfully unaware of the hidden message, giving the in group the added pleasure of putting one over on the uninitiated. If you want to express covert solidarity, use words and phrases that have special meaning for the target, but not for others. In fact, the phrase didn’t blossom in the U.S. until shortly after George W. Bush took office; he wooed evangelicals with snatches from hymns or Bible verses intended to elude listeners not versed in Christian vocabulary. Bush used religious rhetoric in much more open ways, but he also found subtler means to reassure that reliable chunk of his base. Dog whistles, in Australia as in the U.S., get more of a workout from politicians on the right — wonder why that is — so it’s telling that the concept was associated early on with Gingrich and his merry men.

The New York Times, not normally an outlier when it comes to contemporary usage, nevertheless defined “dog-whistle politics” thus in 2005: “handful of emotive issues that will hit voters like a high-pitched whistle,” ignoring the point of the metaphor but not exactly inaccurate, either. In the more regulation sense outlined above, the phrase has always been more common as an adjective, most often modifying “politics,” but it is also available as a noun. While it is possible to use it in other contexts, it is a political term par excellence. It captures one of the many kinds of duplicity required of politicians, though it’s more roundabout than the usual “I know an easy way to make everything better, and it won’t cost you a penny.”

In case anyone is wondering if the presidential election may have prompted this week’s musings, maybe you’re right. But for the most part, Trump didn’t bother with dog whistles, and that was one of the most extraordinary features of his campaign. Hillary did use dog whistles to talk to investment bankers, but she certainly made no effort to convince coal miners that she had a deep connection with them. It’s not entirely true that Trump dispensed with dog whistles, but coyness is not one of his attributes — which doesn’t mean he’s honest — and he did best when he trumpeted the yearnings and grievances of the white right. If the dog whistle loses its raison d’être in our politics, Trump will get the credit — or blame. Dog whistles are dishonorable, but they are also an acknowledgment of an accepted range of political discourse that does not permit slander, baseless accusations, or entirely fabricated “facts” to become the stuff of campaigns. When Trump wanted to fire up his base, he didn’t bother with the subliminal. And it worked better than anything else Republican presidential candidates have tried lately. Maybe all it proves is that many Republican voters don’t like indirect messages because they’re too dumb to interpret them. Give ’em a little rhetorical red meat, and they’ll follow you to the ends of the earth.

Thanks as always to lovely Liz from Queens, who has contributed countless expressions to the blog and continues to do so. My cup runneth over.

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