Several idioms based on the word whistle are associated with politics. This post discusses the origins and meaning of “dog whistle,” whistle-blower, and “whistle-stop tours.”
A dog whistle is any one of various devices that emits a high-pitched sound audible to canines but out of the range of human hearing that is used to train and summon dogs. In a political context, however, “dog whistle” has a pejorative connotation; the analogy is of a word or phrase that has a given literal meaning but also has a subtext to it that means something else to certain audiences. For example, in certain contexts, the invocation of the phrase “states’ rights” in assertions of the right of states in the United States to determine their own laws and policies without interference from the federal government is said to mask tacit advocacy of the perpetuation of racism.
Meanwhile, a whistle-blower is someone who exposes a secret or an act of wrongdoing at a government agency or in a business or organization, with the notion that the person calls attention to something as if he or she were a referee at a sports event alerting athletes to halt play because of a penalty (or had blown a whistle to summon help in an emergency). Whistle-blowers, especially employees who publicize an entity’s crimes or unethical behavior, have risked termination, litigation, and threats of physical harm, and laws have been passed to protect them from such forms of retribution.
A whistle-stop tour, traditionally, is a form of travel in which tourists make multiple brief stops at various sites; the phrase dates from the nineteenth century, when trains were a dominant mode of travel. It is, however, also associated with political campaigns: A train carrying a candidate would halt briefly in turn at numerous small-town stations, and the train’s whistle would alert residents of its arrival, at which point the candidate would give a speech to those who gathered. The term is still used, albeit figuratively, to describe a stop, often at a public venue, along the campaign trail at which a candidate will give a speech and meet supporters.