The recent appearance of the figurative use does not mean that dog whistle has not been used previously to describe the habit that politicians occasionally have of sending coded messages to a certain group of constituents. In 1947, a book titled American Economic History referred to a speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as being “designed to be like a modern dog-whistle, with a note so high that the sensitive farm ear would catch it perfectly while the unsympathetic East would hear nothing.” However, saying that speech is like a dog-whistle (which is a simile) is not quite the same as saying that it is a dog whistle (which is a metaphor), and this subtle distinction is what causes us to judge the phrase as having originated in the 1990s, rather than the 1940s.
Yet theres another dog whistle weve been hearing about lately: a coded message communicated through words or phrases commonly understood by a particular group of people, but not by others.
The earliest, and still most common, meaning of dog whistle is the obvious one: it is a whistle for dogs. Dog ears can detect much higher frequencies than our puny human ears can, so a dog whistle is nothing more than an exceedingly high-pitched whistle that canines can hear, but that we cannot.
Dog whistle appears to have taken on this political sense in the mid-1990s; the Oxford English Dictionary currently has a citation from a Canadian newspaper, The Ottawa Citizen, in October of 1995, as their earliest recorded figurative use: “Its an all-purpose dog-whistle that those fed up with feminists, minorities, the undeserving poor hear loud and clear.”
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Where does dog whistle come from?
The term dog whistle, as a device used for calling dogs and other animals with sensitive hearing, is recorded in the early 1800s.
Dog whistle saw political use as early as the 1940s when a speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt was likened to a dog whistle, which meant it was understandable by some but not others.
The contemporary sense of dog whistle, however, is firmly established in 1995 when a Canadian newspaper described language like “special interest” as a “dog-whistle that those fed up with feminists, minorities, the undeserving poor hear loud and clear.”
Dog whistle spread in the Australian, United Kingdom, and American political press during the 1990s. A phrase, like welfare reform and inner cities, were seen by some observers as a conservative dog whistle to certain white voters, meant to stir up unfounded fears of Black people abusing social support and living lives of drug and crime.
Dog-whistle politics further expanded in the 2000s, especially used to describe presidential campaigns. During his 2004 reelection bid, for example, President George W. Bush was accused of dog-whistling when discussing a historic Supreme Court decision that was overturned. The average voter, it’s said, picked up nothing controversial in the remarks, but the Christian conservative heard the hint that Bush was willing to nominate a justice willing to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Dog whistle gained new prominence during Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Many critics heard in his choruses of law and order, Make America Great Again, and American First as dog whistles: packaging in general, nice-seeming slogans that subliminally suggest a vision for a country where white, Christian males are in power once more.
Then there’s “dumpster fire,” a term that is burning through many media outlets. “Many in the media have equated this election to a ‘Dumpster fire,’ but in reality, Americans’ frustration with Washington is on full display,’ ” the chief executive of a conservative advocacy group said. Another news report said that “the buzz about Melania Trump taking words from the mouth of Michelle Obama adds more fuel to the dumpster fire the Trump campaign sometimes seems to be.” And Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and his staff repeatedly invoked “dumpster fires,” most memorably when a spokesman said that rather than attend the Republican convention, Sasse would “instead take his kids to watch some dumpster fires across the state, all of which enjoy more popularity than the current front-runners.”
The Language Log blog says the earliest metaphorical use was in 2009 by The Washington Post sportswriter Mike Wise, who told The Huffington Post that he’d heard it from a traffic reporter he used to work with. But Wise was at the back of the pack in this case: A Nexis search shows a rash of “dumpster fires” in sports reports starting in November 2008, in such places as The Indianapolis Star (“Look at the dumpster fire down in Jacksonville…”), The Arizona Star (“The season that began as a dumpster fire…”) and The Lawton Constitution in Oklahoma (“…their bullpen is a dumpster fire”). But many “dumpster fires” followed Wise’s use as well, proving again how a good idiom (or cliché) can spread like wildfire.
But both the Americans and the Australians may have been late to the party. As the Merriam-Webster Words at Play blog notes, in October 1995, a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, Jim Coyle, wrote that the term “special interest” was “an all-purpose dog-whistle that those fed up with feminists, minorities, [and] the undeserving poor hear loud and clear.” Eleven months later, Coyle wrote: “It would be nice to think the premier was merely being thoughtless, rather than calculating, that he was not blowing on that dog whistle that only racists hear.”
The “Dumpster” trademark expired in 2008, so there’s no need to capitalize it. Maybe it’s time for the idiom to expire, too: It’s not very accurate, because “dumpster fires” in real life are usually not disasters, or disastrously handled. A “dumpster fire” may look spectacular, sending up large quantities of smoke and flames, but it is confined to a metal box. So to use the metaphor “dumpster fire” in a way other than to mean “spectacle” is overstating its importance. But it won’t stop the idiom from spreading, even though the “dumpster fire” itself usually does not. Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by
The fact that it’s already in the OED indicates how loud “dog whistle” has become. Even before that, lexicographers had been aware of the term: William Safire wrote about it in 2005, noting that The Economist magazine attributed the expression to a political consultant in Australia. Safire found “dog whistle” in a March 1997 issue of The Australian newspaper, which attributed the phrase to, um, Americans. (The author of that 1997 piece later said he was pretty sure it came from Australian politics.)
What does dog whistle mean slang?
What are the whistle commands for a dog?
When was the whistle dog invented?