Simanaitis Says

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WE LIVE IN an era of dog whistles, seemingly subliminal messages that are intended to alert some, yet be inaudible to the less enlightened. I say “seemingly” because who among us isn’t aware of special meanings in the phrases “law and order,” “family values,” and I don’t mean the TV series. 

Here are tidbits gleaned from a variety of sources.

A Dictionary’s View. Merriam-Webster separates the political meaning of “dog whistle” from its original “exceedingly high-pitched whistle that canines can hear, but that we cannot.”

M-W continues, discussing dog whistle as “a coded message communicated through words or phrases commonly understood by a particular group of people, but not by others.” 

Though M-W says the canine-signally tool has been known for more than 200 years, “it seems odd that it only developed a figurative sense recently.” 

Completely as an aside, shouldn’t it be “only recently,” not “only developed”? See FLABBY FUN WITH THE WORD “ONLY.” 

Examples. M-W cites Ross Douthat on Trump, The New York Times, August 10, 2015: “If you want to cast him as just a nativist, his slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ can be read as a dog-whistle to some whiter and more Anglo-Saxon past.”

Image from CNN Business.

M-W also mentions a related term: Ray Drainville cites, “Saul introduces the concept of the ‘figleaf,’ which differs from the more familiar dog whistle: While the dog whistle targets specific listeners with coded messages that bypass the broader population, the figleaf adds a moderating element of decency to cover the worst of what’s on display, but nevertheless changes the boundaries of acceptability.”

That is, to M-W a fig leaf is a euphemism, “a substitution of an agreeable word or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.”

By contrast, Saul’s figleaf or dog whistle has its connotation of coded communication. She writes, “This gives them tremendous power to corrupt not just our political discourse but our culture more broadly.” Jennifer M. Saul is a philosophy professor at the Britain’s University of Sheffield and University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

Aesopian Language. Wikipedia describes another variation of coded messaging, Aesopian language: “…. communications that convey an innocent meaning to outsiders but hold a concealed meaning to informed members of a conspiracy or underground movement.” 

“Blackbirds fly at midnight” is a trivialized example. 

Mikhail Yevgrafovich Saltykov-Shchedrin, 1826–1889. Russian writer and satirist. (Tidbit: the Cyrillic character щ is pronounced “shch.”) Portrait by Ivan Kramskoi.

The nineteenth-century Russian writer Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin used the Aesopian technique to satirize social ills of the time while evading censorship (or worse) by Tsarist rulers. Other Russian writers in the Soviet era followed this theme of referencing Aesop’s animal tales in making views more palatable to authorities.

British author George Orwell used a similar technique in Animal Farm, his 1945 satire on Stalinism. The Doublespeak of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949, is another variation of a word or expression delivering nuances of meaning. 

Reagan’s Dog Whistles. Ian Haney López’s 2014 book Dog Whistle Politics describes Ronald Reagan as “ ‘blowing a dog whistle’ when the candidate told stories about ‘Cadillac-driving welfare-queens’ and ‘strapping young bucks buying T-bone steaks with food stamps’ while he was campaigning for the presidency.”

Simile Versus Metaphor. Being the linguistic purist I’d expect, Merriam-Webster offers a citation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dog whistles: “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.’ ”

FDR delivering a “fireside chat,” a statesman’s rational predecessor to idiotic Tweets. Image from

“However,” M-W continues, “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.”

Concluding Examples: Consider the competing dog whistles “law and order” and “law and order and justice.” The first advises conservatives to throw protesters down and kneel on their throats. The second suggests that liberals find it extreme to shoot people in the back in response to burned-out taillights. 

And don’t get me started on “family values.” Whose family is it anyway? ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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