Dog whistles and dumpster fires

How do politicians appeal to a constituency over things that must not be mentioned in polite company? Things like racism, sexism, violence, and other forms of hatred?

They call in the dogs. Or, to be more precise, they blow dog whistles. 

Zac Goldsmith was accused of blowing the whistle often during his unsuccessful campaign for the London mayoralty against Sadiq Khan. The tactics attributed to him, the Mirror said, “included writing to people whose surname was ‘Singh’ in the address book and warning Mr Khan was coming for their jewellery.”

In the United States, Donald Trump, now the President-elect, was accused of blowing it frequently, as in when he suggested that “the Second Amendment people” could do something about Hillary Clinton’s Supreme Court selections. If you believe in guns, the implication was, you could use them against a political opponent.

As elections get less civil, it’s interesting to see how popular those “dog whistles” have become. This seemed to be the year that the “dog whistle” was heard the loudest.

A real dog whistle, of course, produces an ultrasonic sound that is too high for human hearing, but can be heard by dogs, cats, and other animals. That it was invented in 1876 by Sir Francis Galton seems appropriate, given that he also coined the term “eugenics,” breeding selectively to produce preferred human traits. 

Much human “dog whistling” seems aimed at people who would be interested in eugenics as well.

The Oxford English Dictionary says a dog whistle is “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.”

Urban Dictionary, entirely user generated and thus less “formal,” is more direct, in a 2006 entry on “dog whistle comment”: “A surreptitious inclusion of code words or phrases that will be heard by some of those listening, while not disturbing the other listeners, who may not appreciate the hidden message(s).”

As a political term, “dog whistle” has been around for a while, but no one is sure exactly how long. William Safire wrote about it in 2005, noting that The Economist attributed the expression to a political consultant in Australia. Safire found “dog whistle” in a March 1997 issue of The Australian newspaper, which attributed the phrase to, um, Americans.

But both the Americans and the Australians may have been late to the party. As the Merriam-Webster Words at Play blog notes, a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, Jim Coyle, wrote in October 1995 that the term “special interest” was “an all-purpose dog-whistle that those fed up with feminists, minorities, the undeserving poor hear loud and clear.” Eleven months later, Coyle wrote: “It would be nice to think the premier was merely being thoughtless, rather than calculating, that he was not blowing on that dog whistle that only racists hear.”

As a political Twitter meme, “dog whistle” is right up there with “dumpster fire,” referring to a spectacular failure, a cockup, a bloody mess.

A dumpster is a mobile trash container, introduced in the United States in the 1930s by the Dempster brothers, who coined the term. (“Dumpster” was a trademark until 2008.) For some reason, dumpsters catch on fire a lot. Though those fires usually are contained to the dumpster, they can be pretty spectacular, sending up lots of smoke and flames.

The term “dumpster fire” was added to the Oxford Dictionaries this year, with the definition informal A chaotic or disastrously mishandled situation: last season was a dumpster fire, and it didn’t get that way overnight.”

As that definition seems to indicate, “dumpster fire” as a metaphor may have had its roots in sports.

The Language Log blog says the earliest metaphorical use was in 2009 by the Washington Post sports writer Mike Wise, who told the Huffington Post that he’d heard it from a traffic reporter he used to work with. But “dumpster fires” appear in sports reports starting in November 2008, in such places as The Arizona Star (“The season that began as a dumpster fire…”). But many “dumpster fires” followed Wise’s use as well, proving again how a good idiom (or cliché) can spread like wildfire.

The first political reference to a “dumpster fire” that we can find is even earlier, in a July 2008 post by Scott Smith on the Scholars and Rogues blog: “maybe, satire aside, this whole dumpster fire is bad for progressives fighting their way toward November.” Smith says he heard the term on sports radio.

The term is becoming all-consuming. As the Oxford words blog noted:

“Although we see a fairly steady rise and fall in frequency through 2013 and 2014, usage runs unusually high between the beginning of last summer and the end of 2015. Curiously enough, Donald Trump just happened to announce his campaign for the presidency on June 16th of last year.”