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.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".
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.
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 email@example.com
ALSO! "Hebrew and Yiddish Words in English" on a weekday afternoon.
To search the archives of this blog,
click here, then replace the word "search" in the search window with the term you are looking for.
To have fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox, click here to subscribe by email.