The living history of Palin's "dead fish"

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In two recent posts, Mark Liberman has investigated the religious echoes in expressions from Sarah Palin: "I know that I know that I know" and "If I die, I die." In my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, I take up yet another religiously evocative Palinism: "Only dead fish go with the flow." Turns out that variations of this adage have been circulating in Christian circles for nearly two centuries.

Subtle dog whistle or a typical comment from someone who brags about being covered in fish slime? You be the judge!


  1. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 4:23 am

    I think Palin just doesn't have any other language. Her whole world view is a loosely tacked together jumble of catchphrases like this. Fundamentalism has always been an unconsciously modern movement (just look how creationism apes scientific communication styles and indeed interprets the bible relentlessly as though it was written yesterday by a bunch of natural scientists), and Palin has taken it one giant step further into total postmodern mental fragmentation. Reality for her is no longer the stuff she sees with her eyes, it's the first random thought that comes into her head when she closes them. That's the voice of God!
    There is just no way that she is consciously sending coded messages to anyone. Someone as delusional as this has no control of that kind over what they are saying. If she did, there would be a superficial appearance of some kind of logic, just to keep the likes of us pacified.

  2. Paul said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 5:27 am

    Was I the only one to interpret "Palin's dead fish" as a reference to Michael and this:

    ? Then I had to come back down the garden path to interpret the text of the blog :-)

    Or perhaps it's just because I'm British and so my semantic fields which accompany Michael Palin are much more likely to be excited than those (such as they are) which surround Sarah?

  3. Lance said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 5:45 am

    Unfortunately, Paul, I've become so steeped in Sarah's dead fish, and the stew that the media keeps making of it, that I didn't for a moment think of Michael (and worse, when you said "Michael", I thought "Jackson?")–but at least I realized exactly what you meant without clicking on the YouTube link.

    I'd pay good money to see Sarah and David Letterman re-enact that version of "Palin's dead fish", though.

    And I think Ben-the-commenter (as opposed to Ben-the-poster) is right, at least in his first sentence: it's neither intentional dog-whistle nor casual fisherwoman-speech. The fact that her discussion has been so peppered with things like triple-knowing and a reference to Esther and the dead fish probably is a result of that simply being the language that she speaks, the same way I undoubtedly speak a creole of Science Fiction Geek and Academia without any intent to signal to other people that I'm in those groups.

  4. readyreckoner said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 6:42 am

    It may not be an intentional dog whistle, but it does help explain why conservatives adore her while everyone else can't understand what the attraction could possibly be. Only someone with a real and long-standing commitment to evangelical christianity would use those cliches so automatically, so it proves to religious conservatives that she is truly one of them. Meanwhile, no one else notices… until now…

  5. Joshua J said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 7:23 am

    An evangelical myself, I think dog whistles of this sort are pretty rare — or at least ineffective. And why bother with a dog whistle when you're so comfortable calling out loud?

    As Lance says (rather more charitably than Ben H), she talks the talk of her subculture, like most people do — with the exception, perhaps, of folks who are constantly worried about how they sound (a pitiable sort of vanity that infects academics in particular).

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 8:29 am

    Wait a minute. We have two cites from religious contexts from 1826 and 1830, a general indication that usage in the 19th century was commonly in religious contexts (at a time when Christianity was hardly a marginal subculture in the Anglophone world), and a "go with the flow" adaptation from the 1980's from a writer who I had not previously heard of but who does not, per a moment's googling, appear to be particularly associated with the Evangelical subculture. (E.g., she has been favorably reviewed in the Village Voice and given a reading in the not-very-Bible-thumping locale of Bolinas, Cal.) Maybe there's evidence that this particular turn of phrase as used in America in the last few decades is particularly common in the Evangelical subculture. But none has been offered. Neither the substance nor the wording are distinctively religious. It's not like the secularists of our day are rhetorically opposed to "avoiding mindless passivity," are they? As to the fish . . . well, maybe sometimes a fish is just a fish. Or is "The fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high" an evangelical dogwhistle?

  7. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 8:45 am

    J.W.: You can find many recent religious examples of "(only) dead fish go with the flow" on Google Books. In the Word Routes column I was more concerned with determining the age of the expression.

  8. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    It's not hard to parse this situation: (Ex-)Gov. Palin's religious grounding is way out of the mainstream flow, all right, but the press wouldn't touch it with a barge-pole during the campaign. Bishop Thomas Muthee's exorcism of her was all over the UK press but was almost completely ignored in the US. OTOH, Obama's rev. Wright was beaten about the head and shoulders by the mainstream media for remarks lifted out of context while his real work (the Audacity To Hope sermon, for example) was ignored.

    I think that Ms Palin's advisers realized that they had lucked out and made it plain to her that she'd better lay off the God stuff before the press caught on. Hence her recent silence on matters ecclesiastical, save the occasional toot on the dog-whistle. It's still there, but you have to know what to listen for.

  9. anchorageite said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 10:37 am

    Palin is also the kind of person who would say "Unless you're the lead dog, the scenery never changes." Corny, yes; dog-whistle, probably not.

  10. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    Or is "The fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high" an evangelical dogwhistle?

    – more a kind of elaborate wolfwhistle.

  11. Emily said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 10:52 am

    Also, don't forget that Palin's old basketball nickname was "Sarah Barracuda", so for people attentive to the whole Palin "mythos", this reference to dead fish might resonate nicely with her sports metaphors elsewhere in the speech. I agree with Ben Hemmens, though, that Palin's use of these catchphrases is probably due to force of habit rather than any plan to send subliminal messages. Certainly she seemed very… unplanned in that resignation speech.

    However, what I initially thought of(before remembering the barracuda-basketball connection) was Glenn Beck's use of one "Larry the Dead Fish" to make a point about the media covering up the fact that Obama was printing money:
    That's the risk of using odd catchphrases– you don't know what they'll remind people of.

  12. rpsms said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    After reading the transcript of her resignation, I became convinced that she only speaks cogently when parroting catchphrases and party platform positions.

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    I appreciate BZ's google books link showing recent usage. Of the 10 hits on the first page, 5 appear religious and 5 secular. At least one of the religious titles is explicitly Roman Catholic rather than evangelical, and another is on its face *not* right-wing (the one with a subtitle about "Creative Nonviolence"). The secular books include two business-guru-jargon titles (e.g. "The Six Secrets of Change"), one true life Cold War thriller about CIA activity in the Himalayas, one book about flyfishing, and something called "Interpretive Approaches to Interpersonal Communication."

    So maybe Gov. Palin has intentionally thrown out a multi-tasking dogwhistle phrase baffling to the mass media, but simultaneously meaningful to a) churchgoers; b) businessmen; and c) Cold War enthusiasts (with a bonus flyfisherman thrown in). If so, she's a frickin' political genius who's reassembled the old Reagan coalition.

    Or maybe we've got some confirmation bias here, where a pre-existing conception about the speaker means that any turn of phrase with both religious and secular associations is assumed to be exhibiting the former rather than the latter. In yesterday's Esther thread, I was the only commenter who threw out an alternative secular provenance for the phrase "if I die, I die," but no one seemed interested in exploring that possibility. (I'm probably more of a churchgoing Christian than the median LL commenter, but I threw out the particular secular alternative because it was the first thing that popped into my head. Was the future governor directly or indirectly aware of the Virgin Prunes album by that title that came out back when she and I were in high school? I have no idea, but this is a woman who is reliably reported to have given one of her children the middle name "Van" because she thought it was cool that "Van Palin" rhymed with "Van Halen.")

    [(myl) I don't think that Ben is arguing for a "dog whistle" interpretation, and I've certainly argued explicitly against any theory of special signaling in such cases, suggesting instead that

    We all "constantly litter" our speech and writing with messages that will be fully received only by those who share our verbal and conceptual associations. But we don't usually do this in order to create a Straussian double message, an esoteric wolf in an exoteric sheepskin. We do this because we can't help it, it's how language works, and also how thought works.

    Or as Lance put it in another comment,

    The fact that [Gov. Palin's] discussion has been so peppered with things like [those under discussion] probably is a result of that simply being the language that she speaks, the same way [Lance] undoubtedly speak a creole of Science Fiction Geek and Academia without any intent to signal to other people that [he's] in those groups.

    And our motivation for posting about it is just to try to understand the intertextual foundations of some much-discussed texts. If the background for a particular phrase turns out to be pop music or self-help books rather than (or in addition to) the bible or a particular tradition of christian theology, I'm happy to find that out. ]

  14. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    "…folks who are constantly worried about how they sound (a pitiable sort of vanity…"

    Well, Joshua J., I wouldn't automatically classify caring about how you sound as vanity. I'm a translator and a large part of the job is helping people sound the way they need to sound in order to communicate whatever it is effectively.

  15. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    J.W. Brewer,
    you do realize that the Virgin Prunes were part of the same scene as U2 and there was a fair amount of biblical stuff getting bandied about ?

  16. Joe said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    For a dog whistle to work, shouldn't it be cryptic at some level? Bush's Iraq comma was cryptic at some level and could be interpreted as a dog whistle. But the image is evocative enough to be intelligible to non-group members, whoever the group maybe.

    At best, I can see this functioning as a shibboleth (see Furthermore, I don't think it's specific to conservatives ( but it could very well be populist.

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

    @Ben, I don't think of Gavin F. as being quite as Biblically-inspired as his boyhood friend Bono, but if there's a story out there that the album title came from Esther (or that reliably gives another origin), that would be cool. The phrase "if i die, i die" apparently also appears in the lyrics a not-very-Biblical-sounding song called "Stealing Society" by System of a Down, a band which probably had a much higher profile among the high school classmates of Gov. Palin's older children than the VP's did in the U.S. either back then or now.* I remain somewhat skeptical about the Esther thing simply because translations using the alternative "if I perish, I perish" seem substantially more common and to have substantially greater aggregate market share, and of course using the "perish" phrasing would "sound Biblical." Whereas "if I die, I die" sounds like some tough-guy line from some old movie you can't quite place.

    Back to this thread, the early 20th C. English writer G.K. Chesterton (particularly popular these days in the U.S. with Christian readers for his explicitly Christian writings) is said to have said (i.e. I haven't myself checked the alleged source book) "A dead thing can go with the stream but only a living thing can go against it." I picked up that phrasing of the concept some years back from a very different sort of religious-rightist than Gov. Palin (unless she unknown to me is wistful for the lost Hapsburg Empire). Note the lack of any potentially Christ-signifying fish in GKC's version.

    I agree with myl's general points, but the comment by Lance he quoted highlights the open empirical question about the "nature of the language that she speaks." Some people (meaning some of the less irenic commenters, not the original posters) seem perhaps excessively pre-commited to that being Scary-Bible-Thumper dialect as opposed to business-guru-self-help-motivational-speaker dialect or bogus-politician-folksy-cornpone dialect.

    *The only reason I heard any tracks off the Virgin Prunes album when it came out was because I was in my high school days a regular listener to WXPN, the non-commercial radio station affiliated with Prof. Liberman's university. Don't know if there was an equivalent in Alaska at the time.

  18. peter said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    These posts on Palin's evangical dog-whistles have reminded me of Charles McCarry's comment (IIRC, in "Shelley's Heart"), that modern political communication is a system whereby politicians and officials send encoded messages to each other via the mass media, but where no one, not even those doing the encoding, has the necessary decoders.

  19. Mark P said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    In my opinion, two of the three phrases would easily pass as purely secular (if I die, I die, and the dead fish comment) in the absence of any other possibly religious expressions (except some of those that are common in everyday speech). But one of them (the three-"know" phrase) appears to be an expression that is reasonably attributed to religious speech. Given that, it isn't unreasonable to look for religious connections in the other two.

  20. Sili said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

    Hmmm – I hadn't thought of this before (some cleverer indubitably have), but the suggestion that SP is talking only in catchphrases and that the 'dogwhisteling' is merely Fundie … 'par-auralia' makes me think that she could be an incarnation of Jerzy Kosinski's Chauncey Gardener.

  21. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 3:46 pm

    "I don't think of Gavin F. as being quite as Biblically-inspired as his boyhood friend Bono,…"

    Ah, but you reckon without Dick Evans, the Edge's brother. The Evanses were Welsh and went to the Presbyterian church and thus a certain exposure to bible stories in their childhood is more or less to be presumed. And it's possible that the Prunes, about the time of that album, were sufficiently irritated by the growing religious interests of their mates that they chose to use a biblical phrase just to *** them off.

    I'm not suggesting any religiosity on the part of the Prunes themselves.

  22. Janice Huth Byer said,

    July 10, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

    The phrase, not being strictly true, struck me as sadly typical of the glib reasoning that seems to undermine so many of Sarah's talking points.

    As well-noted by J.W. Brewer above, C.K. Chesterton got it right when he made the distinction that only dead fish have to go with the flow, which isn't the same as saying they alone do. Admittedly, it's more persuasive to compare meeting one's obligation to being a dead fish than otherwise.

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