Comma Code?

October 05, 2006

The Washington Post has an interesting article on President George W. Bush’s recent remark that the Iraq conflict would be viewed by historians as “just a comma.” The article wonders about the meaning of the remark and the possibility that it was coded language. It states:

And a lively Internet debate has broken out about the origins of the phrase, with some speculating that Bush means it as a coded message to religious supporters, evoking the aphorism “Never put a period where God has put a comma.”

... Then Ian Welsh, on his Agonist blog, postulated a theory about the hidden meaning of the comment, citing the “never put a period” saying and calling it a “dog whistle” comment that only some would understand: “He is constantly littering his speeches with code words and phrases meant for the religious right. Other people don’t hear them, but they do, and most of the time it allows Bush both to say what those who aren’t evangelical or born again want to hear, while still reassuring the religious right [what it] wants to hear.”
However, the article rightly points out that if this was the attempt, it was not a very well-chosen code:

But it turns out that the phrase “never put a period” originated not with a Christian conservative figure or biblical passage but with Gracie Allen, the comedienne wife of George Burns. And the phrase is a favorite not of the religious right but of the religious left. The United Church of Christ, which is devoted to fighting for what it calls social justice and opposes the war, adopted the phrase in January 2002.
Even though the coded message or “dog whistle” theory does not seem accurate this time, it has happened in the past. For example, Bush used the phrase “wonder-working power” in one of his State of the Union Addresses (though it blasphemously put the power being praised as that of the American people and not God’s). But the whole discussion is an interesting one since it does draw attention to the importance of the words we use.

(By the way, for a completely different look at commas, check out my column from last year: Don’t Let a Comma Come Between Us.)


  1. I hope this is it what it means, because when I first read that, I wondered how many families of KIA soldiers would appreciate their loss in the same way, just a comma in the novel of life.

    Good post :)

  2. Anonymous2:04 PM

    Some times it could be coded language, it may not, but just as the Pope's words that set the Muslim world furious, do you think that the most powerful people of the world will left one single word at random? They are politicians and their words are their life... that is my humble opinion..thanks...Sen

  3. Nathan: Thanks for the comment. I agree that the “comma” remark seems insensitive. I do not think that was the meaning Bush intended. However, he should have chosen another way to make his point because clearly this one missed the mark.

    Sen: I do not think Bush’s use of “comma” was randomly chosen. I do, however, think it was a poorly chosen analogy because it seems to downplay thousands of deaths. Even the most powerful people of the world make poor decisions in what words they choose. Thanks for adding your thoughts.