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.)