Are “keep your powder dry” or “Stand back and standby” arguably examples of “dog whistles”?

The Politicus
Oct 02, 2020 02:25 AM 0 Answers
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My question is as much about the proper use of terminology as it is about the use of the phrases. But I'm asking about instances and usage rather than intent, I'm not asking to read minds.


The English SE question What does “keep their powder dry on where they stand” mean? refers to a recent statement by the US Senate Majority Leader:

The last sentence in the Washington Post's Battle over the replacement of Ruth Bader Ginsburg rages as tributes to late justice pour in says:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell privately told his members in a letter circulated Friday night to keep their powder dry on where they stand on proceeding with a confirmation fight this year.

This answer explains that the phrase's origin relates to gun powder:

Before the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, Oliver Cromwell famously told his troops to "Trust in God and keep your powder dry"

A week and a half later I heard the phrase used again, this time by former US security adviser John Bolton. Here's a recent CNN News video Ex-Trump official: President's Proud Boys threat was real (my transcription):

Bolton: ...but he’s getting the benefit out of the ambiguity during the interim and he knows it, and he does this all the time.

Blitzer: What did he mean when he said... to this group The Proud Boys what did he mean when he said “Stand back and standby”?

Bolton: I took that to mean “Just back off for now, but to put it a different way: keep your powder dry.

I've heard the term "dog whistle" used frequently when the current US president's words are analyzed. I think it refers to phrases that can have multiple interpretations; they can arguably be innocuous but simultaneously serve a specific purpose and/or send a specific message to a subgroup whose "ears" are more finely tuned to certain phrases or themes. Another example of the concept might be a certain hand position with index finger and thumb touching, other three fingers extended, which most might call the "OK sign", others might see as innocuous inflection to augment speech, but some might see as looking like the letters "WP" standing for "White Power".


Can "keep your powder dry" or "Stand back and standby" be said to be examples of "dog whistles" in these political contexts? I'm not asking if they are or are not dog whistles. While that's an interesting question and potentially askable here, for this question I'd just like to focus on my use of the terminology "dog whistle" and if that term can arguably be applied to "keep your powder dry" or "Stand back and standby".

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  • October 2, 2020