dog whistle

[ dawg-hwis-uh l, -wis-, dog- ]
/ ˈdɔgˌʰwɪs əl, -ˌwɪs-, ˈdɒg- /

noun

Politics. a political strategy, statement, slogan, etc., that conveys a controversial, secondary message understood only by those who support the message: His criticism of welfare was a dog whistle appealing to racist voters.

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Origin of dog whistle

First recorded in 1995–2000; < dog whistle a high-frequency whistle audible to dogs but not humans

OTHER WORDS FROM dog whistle

dog-whis·tle, adjectivedog whistling, noun
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

ABOUT THIS WORD

What does dog whistle mean?

A dog whistle is a political term about statements that appear innocent to the general public but they actually use subtle, coded language to communicate a secondary message to an intended group.

The messages are often racial or bigoted in nature, used to attract certain voters and energize them to vote.

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.

How is dog whistle used in real life?

When language is charged as a political dog whistle, it is usually in an attempt to reveal the candidate’s unspoken agenda, expose their lack of honesty, and call out tactics like race-baiting or anti-Semitism.

More examples of dog whistle:

“When you’ve been playing dog-whistle racial politics, don’t be surprised when someone with a fully racist bullhorn walks in to find a warmed-up audience.”
—Manuel Pastor, Newsweek, July, 2018

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

Example sentences from the Web for dog-whistle

British Dictionary definitions for dog-whistle

dog-whistle

adjective

relating to the targeting of potentially controversial messages to specific voters while avoiding offending those voters with whom the message will not be populardog-whistle politics

verb

(intr) to employ this kind of political strategy

Word Origin for dog-whistle

C21: from the fact that a dog whistle operates at frequencies that can be heard only by dogs
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012