Language Goes to the Dogs

Rob Kyff on

When White House adviser Stephen Miller accused a CNN reporter of having a "cosmopolitan bias" last month, some pundits claimed he was using the term as a "dog whistle" -- a coded message that flies over the heads of most people but conveys a special meaning to certain constituencies.

Noting that "cosmopolitan" was once used by fascists, Nazis and Bolsheviks as a catchall slur for globalist enemies, especially Jews, Amulya Shanker of Public Radio International wrote, "The word 'cosmopolitan' still serves as a dog whistle within the white nationalist movement in the United States."

Whether Miller intended "cosmopolitan" as a secret signal is debatable, but the origin of "dog whistle," a term that's been whizzing through the ether of political dialogue for more than 20 years, is clear.

In its literal sense, of course, "dog whistle" refers to a device that emits a high-frequency sound that humans can't hear but canines can. These nifty gizmos enable dog owners to call or train their pooches without disturbing the grumpy next-door neighbor. So "dog whistle" is the perfect metaphor for a coded message.

Political dog whistling is nothing new. Politicians from both parties have been piping the pups for decades, using "inner city" to mean African Americans and Hispanics, "law and order" to suggest that people of color and liberals are lawless, "silent majority" to denote white people, "states rights" to mean segregation, and the phrase "voting against their best interests" to suggest that low-income whites who vote for Republicans are stupid.

During last year's presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton was accused of using the dog whistles "implicit bias" (to mean "racism" without directly saying it) and "super predators" (to mean African-American young men), while some claimed Donald Trump's slogan "Make America Great Again" really meant "let's return to an era when there were fewer people of color."

Editors at Merriam-Webster, who added the political definition of "dog whistle" to their dictionary last April, discovered that the metaphoric use of dog whistle first surfaced in 1947, when a book titled "American Economic History" described a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt as "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."

I wonder whether FDR's Scottish Terrier, Fala, could hear that coded message too.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2017 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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