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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Whistling an unhappy tune

 Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class by [Lopez, Ian Haney]

In the last couple of years, we have, alas, become very familiar with the use of "dog-whistle" (usually as an adjective), meaning, to quote the OED:
 2. Polit. A statement or expression which in addition to its ostensible meaning has a further interpretation or connotation intended to be understood only by a specific target audience.

In particular, it usually applies to words having a hidden meaning that only the bigoted hear. 

Baltimore Sun editor John McIntyre also uses it in the following way: 
“Dog whistle editing” is attention to distinctions of usage that only other copy editors can hear.
Perhaps the most notorious of these wastes of time and attention is the over/more than distinction, observed only by American newspaper editors. Seriously. When I’ve mentioned this quibble to lexicographers, they’ve given me blank looks, over having been in use in the sense of more than since before the Normans corrupted Anglo-Saxon.
You can see below, in a graph tracking the use of "dog-whistle" in Canadian newspapers, how much the usage has exploded, especially as a result of the US election campaign. We have "dog-whistle rhetoric", "dog-whistle campaigns", "dog-whistle racism", and above all, "dog-whistle politics".

The inevitable has also happened: "dog-whistle" is now also used as a verb: 
"And I think that was a disturbing trend in American politics, that this man was dog-whistling to some pretty disturbing elements"

Where did it all start? 

A Canadian connection?

It seems, according to the OED, that there is a Canadian twist to this tale. The first evidence the dictionary has for it is from an article by Canadian journalist Jim Coyle about the then Conservative government in Ontario:
1995   Ottawa Citizen 15 Oct. a9/1   On the lips of Premier Mike Harris, the term ‘special interest’ has the tone of epithet. It's an all-purpose dog-whistle that those fed up with feminists, minorities, the undeserving poor hear loud and clear.
However, Mr Coyle tells me that he cannot claim credit for this coinage, as "blowing the dog whistle" was a term much in use amongst reporters at the Ontario legislature already in the early eighties, to designate slyly-worded statements from politicians aimed at fanning anti-francophone sentiment.

Be that as it may, I have been unable to find any earlier written evidence in several large databases, so Mr Coyle may still hold the title of being the first to have committed this to paper. It is entirely possible that the Queen's Park reporters were the first to use the phrase. This decade-long lag between a word or phrase appearing in speech and its first written evidence is not uncommon. It is a phenomenon that underscores the unlikelihood that Shakespeare actually "invented" all the words for which the first written evidence is in his works. 

Want to know more about why the English language is the (weird) way it is? Let me know if you would be interested in taking my very popular "Rollicking Story of the English Language" course in Toronto on a weekday afternoon (or possibly a Saturday or Sunday morning) in January, February, or March. Email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Why are coasters called coasters?

You know, if you're going to use dictionary-style "entries" for Canadianisms as the concept for your product you should at least get your info right. No, our Canadian toque is not pronounced like toke. It rhymes with "spook". 
For more on toques, see this post: 

I saw these coasters, made by an Ontario company from upcycled beer bottles, on sale at the Royal Ontario Museum gift shop. You can also get matching beer glasses if you really want to spread the "toke" mistake around. 

Once I got over my "Why did we go to all the trouble of writing the Canadian Oxford Dictionary for these people?" shock at this, I started to wonder, "Why the heck do we call those things coasters, anyway?"

A "coaster" was originally a person or  a ship who sailed from port to port along a coast, or around the coast of an island.  In the late 1800s, some wit saw a similarity between this and the silver tray on which the after-dinner bottle of port (the other kind of port) circulated around a table, stopping at every welcoming "harbour" along the way. Coasters gradually became smaller and more stationary, until they designated the type of object above.

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.