The recent United States political cycle has been using the term "dog whistle" a lot. From a recent Rolling Stone headline:

Trump's Assassination Dog Whistle Was Even Scarier Than You Think

And their article:

Stated differently: Trump puts out the dog whistle knowing that some dog will hear it, even though he doesn't know which dog.

I assume that the meaning is something similar to double entendre where a statement can be interpreted a few different ways. But why use "dog whistle", specifically? And where did the term first originate?

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    possible duplicate of: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/100130/… (Can't VTC as duplicate though since it's on a different site).
    – cobaltduck
    Aug 11, 2016 at 17:47
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    It's a pretty transparent metaphor, so I wouldn't have needed Wikipedia to tell me that Dog-whistle politics is political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup. I don't think I've come across that particular term before, but I'm sure plenty of American political hacks have been using it of Trump a lot lately. Aug 11, 2016 at 18:23
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    A "dog whistle" is when a conspiracy theorist interprets random or arbitrary input to conform to his conspiracy theory. A dog can hear sounds nobody else can hear; a conspiracy theorist can hear meanings that are even more obscure -- they exist only in his imagination. Aug 12, 2016 at 19:04
  • Did you have to throw fuel on the Trump fire in the title? >_>
    – jpmc26
    Aug 13, 2016 at 0:03

4 Answers 4


It appears to be an expression of the late '80s according to journalist Willian Safire, but its origin and common usage is mainly Australian from the late '90s. The allusion is to sheep-farming where a farmer uses a whistle which is audible only to a dog. By analogy, a specific political message can be registered only by those to whom it is directed:

Dog-whistle politics:

  • According to William Safire, the term "dog whistle" in reference to politics may have been derived from its use in the field of opinion polling. Safire quotes Richard Morin, director of polling for The Washington Post, as writing in 1988, "subtle changes in question-wording sometimes produce remarkably different results.... researchers call this the 'Dog Whistle Effect': Respondents hear something in the question that researchers do not", and speculates that campaign workers adapted the phrase from political pollsters.

Dictionary.com dates its origin in the second part of the '90s:

Dog whistle:

  • 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.
  • Origin of dog whistle 1995/2000

The Taegan Goddard's Political Dictionary defines the expression "dog-whistle politics" as:

  • A type of political speech using code words that appear to mean one thing to the general population but have a different meaning for a targeted part of the audience.

  • The Economist: “Over the past few weeks, a new expression has entered the Westminster lexicon: dog-whistle politics. It means putting out a message that, like a high-pitched dog-whistle, is only fully audible to those at whom it is directly aimed.”

According to the following extract from www.macmillandictionary.com/buzzword the expression has Australian origin where it was popular from the late '90s and was exported to the U.K. in 2005:

  • The term dog-whistle politics originates from Australian English, and was introduced to the UK by Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby, who was involved in the 2005 Conservative Party election campaign.
  • Crosby had helped Australian Prime Minister John Howard to four consecutive election victories, with the focus of the campaigning on so-called dog-whistle issues, an expression in use in Australia since around 1997.
  • The dog-whistle analogy was drawn from Australian sheep-farming, where a farmer uses a whistle which is only audible to one dog. This idea was taken over into political contexts as a way of describing a message aimed exclusively at one section of the electorate.
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    Dog whistles exist because dogs can hear higher pitches than we can. But how can a whistle be audible to only one dog? Aug 12, 2016 at 5:57
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    What I'm curious about (and I am Australian) is why this analogy works in any way. As in the original question people detect the "dog whistle" messages, so they aren't just received by the intended audience. If a particular message was only received by (say) bigots, you would need to have a bigot tell you they heard a hidden message, to know it was there. Aug 12, 2016 at 6:26
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    @AntonSherwood: careless wording, I reckon they mean "only audible to the one dog present". If I say, "if a tree falls in a forest is it only audible to one lumberjack?", I don't mean that other lumberjacks wouldn't hear if if they were there, I mean that they aren't there :-) Aug 12, 2016 at 9:25
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    Growing up in the USA in the 1970, I used to see ads for dog whistles in magazines all the time. They aren't just used for training sheepdogs, but for training dogs in general. Also, I don't really see the point of the 1/3 of this answer about Australia. The term originated with US politics.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 12, 2016 at 13:50
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    @Josh61 - The first quote in this answer does that already.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 12, 2016 at 14:42

Although what became known as a "silent dog whistle" was invented by Francis Galton in 1876, the term silent dog whistle first arises in Google Books search results in the 1930s. From A.M. Low, Popular Scientific Recreations (1933):

A "Silent" Dog Whistle.—Animals, of course, can hear higher notes than we can, and with a little ingenuity it is possible to make a whistle that cannot be heard by human beings, but to which a dog answers readily.

Mordecai Siegal, The Good Dog Book: Loving Care (1977) offers this discussion:

Dogs can hear better than humans but not quite as well as cats. They can hear sounds that we cannot and can listen for a familiar footstep long before it comes within human earshot. The so-called Galton whistle or silent dog whistle is not silent at all. It is pitched at a frequency too high for the human ear but quite clear to the canine or feline ear.

The fullest discussion of dog whistle in the context of politics appears in William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary (2008). Here are some extracts from Safire's coverage:

dog whistle politics The use of messages embedded in speeches that seem innocent to a general audience but resonate with a specific public attuned to receive them.


Commenting on the President's historical reference [in 2004 to the Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision, which was overturned eight years later by the thirteenth amendment], David D. Kilpatrick wrote in The New York Times: "The potential double meaning rekindled speculation among Mr. Bush's critics that he communicates with his conservative Christian base with a dog whistle of code words and symbols, deliberately incomprehensible to secular liberals." The message would be pitched high enough to rally the whistler's core constituency without unduly arousing the opposition.


The political dog whistle may have derived from the term's use by pollsters. Richard Morin, director of polling for The Washington Post, observed in a 1988 article that "Subtle changes in question-wording sometimes produce remarkably different results.... researchers call this the 'Dog Whistle Effect': Respondents hear something in the question that researchers do not."

The effect has been noticed in other fields. In 1989, Russell Smith noted in the Dallas Morning News that an MTV spot "which has no obvious reason to exist, is like a secret signal, a dog whistle blown on thirtysomething frequency. Come back, MTV beckons, in a language it hasn't spoken in years." Two years earlier, in New York magazine, Geraldine Stutz, three-decade president of Henri Bendel in New York City, described her taste in "Dog-whistle fashion," meaning that she specialized in stocking in her store "clothes with a pitch so high and special that only the thinnest and most sophisticated women would hear their call."

Yet another area to which "dog whistle" has been applied is men's emotional response to music. From Brett Mandell, Is This Heaven? The Magic of the Field of Dreams (2002):

As for why the film resonated so well—especially for men—[Tim] Busfield has a theory involving the film's score. According to Busfield, "There's a note that James Horner hits in his music about the time when Kevin's character says to his dad, 'You wanna have a catch?' There's a note that he hits that's like the dog whistle for men's emotions. It sets off something that men, the emotional side of men, just lets go."

The earliest use of the term in a political sense that a Google Books search finds is from Laurie Oakes, "A Sly-Dog Race Card," in The [Sydney, New South Wales] Bulletin (November 13, 2001):

The key feature of this election campaign has been a clever use of what professionals call "dog whistle politics". A dog whistle is pitched so high that dogs hear it but humans do not. Dog whistle politics involves pitching a message to a particular group of voters that other voters do not hear.

Whether use of dog whistle in a strictly political sense goes back much further than that is hard to judge. One early but ambiguous instance of the term in a political context appears in "North's 'Talk' Muzzled," a very brief letter to the editor of The [Boston, Massachusetts] Heights: The Student Weekly of Boston College (October 24, 1988) by Raymond McNally, a professor of history:

As Oliver North comes to BC muzzled by his lawyers, since he is under indictment, going to hear him "talk" is like listening to a bird dog whistle.

Ultimately, it is unclear whether Professor McNally's point was that North's speech wouldn't be worth hearing because it would be (metaphorically speaking) pitched beyond the hearing of human listeners in order to minimize North's legal liability for anything he might say, or whether he was implying that only listeners attuned to North's dog-whistle language would be in a position to grasp the true significance of his remarks. The former possibility strikes me as being rather more likely.

Scientific breakthrough!

I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the astounding discovery by Dr. Rafik Tajerian of Budapest, Hungary, that a specially (albeit accidentally) modified silent dog whistle "can stifle a grown man's wandering eye." You can read all the details—including a Before and After dramatic photo reenactment of the whistle's effectiveness—in "Hold It, Mister! Ultrasonic Whistle Stops a Cheatin' Man in His Tracks," in Weekly World News (January 22, 2002). The report of this scientific breakthrough undoubtedly would have earned above-the-fold front-page billing if not for the competition from a shocking historical exposé, "Abraham Lincoln Was a Woman!"

Aside from the significant philosophical and practical overlap between dogs, politicians, and cheatin' men, this story has nothing to do with "political dog whistles"—but I strive to be fair and balanced in my presentation of all the crucial information that I encounter in my research.


Here's how Wikipedia says it:

Dog-whistle politics is political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup. The phrase is often used as a pejorative because of the inherently deceptive nature of the practice and because the dog-whistle messages are frequently distasteful to the general populace. The analogy is to a dog whistle, whose high-frequency whistle is heard by dogs but inaudible to humans.

The term originated with American (racial) politics. It is somewhat synonymous with coded language. What I think Wikipedia glossed over is the implication that those who hear what is really being said are somehow sub-human (dogs).

The idea is that there may be a quandary where you'd like to appeal to a certain voting block (like racists) by talking about their issues, but overtly expressing support for racisim is odious to the public at large. So you have to use a code that sounds like it is talking about a completely bland political issue, rather than the thing the rest of the public considers evil.

The metaphor of a dog-whistle is used because most people don't hear anything racial, or at least can't prove that's what you were saying so they can ignore it if they want, while those people who immerse themselves in one side of this issue know those terms are in fact really about race, and come running to you like a dog that has just been called for. In theory, only the racists hear the racist language.

In particular, it is talking about the racially coded language used as part of the Republican Southern Strategy. Here is Republican operative Lee Atwater describing how it works back in 1981: (spoiler tag used due to offensive language)

Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."

Using it for this Trump quote was a bit of a stretch, but here's the logic: People who are heavily immersed in the USA gun culture tend to culturally believe that a big reason for having the 2nd Amendment is so that the people have the option of fighting back against a tyrannical government. So if you are deft enough you can talk about the 2nd Ammendment, and people who are part of that culture will know you are talking about using guns against the government.

The problem here is that Trump isn't very good with dog-whistles (which actually seems to be part of his appeal to a lot of people). So when he tried to actually use one here, he was too explicit and everyone knew exactly what he was talking about.

To extend the metaphor, everyone heard the whistle, not just the dogs.

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    Sorry, wher did you take the sentence "The term originated with American (racial) politics." from?
    – user66974
    Aug 12, 2016 at 15:11
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    From the link that I put on those words.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 12, 2016 at 15:13
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    That link says: "The term originated in Australian politics in the mid-1990s, and was frequently applied to the political campaigning of John Howard." Under which heading?
    – user66974
    Aug 12, 2016 at 15:14
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    @Josh61: the link says, "According to William Safire, the term "dog whistle" in reference to politics may have been derived from its use in the field of opinion polling" and blah blah implying this occurred in the US. William Safire's speculation is good enough for T.E.D., why isn't it good enough for the rest of us? ;-) Aug 12, 2016 at 15:34
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    @T.E.D. No, that is not what Wikipedia says Safire says. What Morin is describing in that quote is not "dog whistle politics" (which is when a politician says something intended to be interpreted differently by different audiences), it is an effect in polling that he's calling the "dog whistle effect", in which a polling question is answered differently according to changes in wording which the pollster considers insignificant. The transferral of the latter to the former is described by Wikipedia as being what Samfire speculates happened. Aug 12, 2016 at 15:39

The earliest use of '[silent] dog whistle' in a political context that I encountered was in an article titled "The Dismal Cuban Affair" (C. L. Sulzberger, The Warren County Observer, Pennsylvania, 22 Apr 1961):

The high moral tone we had been proclaiming has risen to an indectable dog whistle.

That use was not in any sense even tangential to the definition given in OED Online:

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.

["dog whistle, n.". OED Online. September 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/33708795?redirectedFrom=dog+whistle (accessed November 06, 2016).]

The next appearance in a political context may express the sense of "a coded message". In an article ("Bradley Labels Unruh Mailout to Blacks 'Viscious, Outrageous'", The Los Angeles Times, 14 Mar 1973) concerning a mailer from the mayoral campaign of Democratic politician Jesse Unruh which compared his record as councilman with that of a black politician named Tom Bradley, the mailer is quoted as saying

In the "peace and security" classification, Bradley said he quarreled with his [Murray's, the Unruh campaign spokesman responsible for the mailer] characterization of his [Bradley's] record: "Would use gimmicks: 'dog whistles' for school problems; community involvement; use of revenue sharing funds for more police equipment; is a retired policeman."

Although that use may express the sense of 'coded messages', it is not entirely clear to me that it does, and other interpretations might be better.

Another early use in a (highly) political context occurred in an article titled "Dog Days at White House" (Bob Considine, as printed in The Circleville Herald, Circleville, Ohio, 5 Aug 1974) concerning the publication of the diary of a White House kennelkeeper named Traphes Bryant. The reference to a 'dog whistle' is oblique, at best:

dog whistle politics reference from 1974

Next was a clear reference to the sense of 'coded message targeting a specific audience', in an 6 Oct 1988 article titled "There's no Joy in Campaign" (Hunter Thompson writing in a syndicated column from Aspen, Colorado; as reprinted in the Arizona Republic).

Last week was a good one for the dog-whistle crowd. First came the "Statue of Elvis Found on Mars" that hit the supermarkets — and then it was President Reagan's sudden decision to fly up to New York and deliver his "final farewell speech" to the U.N. Assembly.

Hunter Thompson's use of the term occurred 10 days before the publication mentioned by Safire (as cited by other answers) in a 16 Oct 1988 article titled "The Dirty Little Secrets of Polling" (Richard Morin, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Missouri):

dog whistle 16 Oct 1988

While nothing precludes Thompson's having adopted the term from the source mentioned by Morin (public polling "researchers"), Thompson's use, aside from having appeared slightly earlier, appears to be much more clearly in line with the well-defined political sense the term later acquired.

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