White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon has been called a lot of things in recent times, and some of the nicest names have had a common denominator: whisperer.
Many have dubbed Bannon the “Trump whisperer.” Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott labeled him a “despot whisperer.” The Southern Poverty Law Center called Bannon “whisperer-in-chief.”
Such terms perfectly reflect the popular perception of Bannon as a manipulator of President Trump, suggesting the taming talents of horse whisperers and dog whisperers. “Whisperer” also suggests secrecy, paranoia, and conspiracy, which have an irresistible appeal across the political spectrum. These associations make “X whisperer” a powerful, reliable formula for praising, damning, or branding.
The term “horse whisperer” has been around since at least the mid-1800s. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a person who tames or trains horses with non-aggressive methods, typically using body language and gentle vocal encouragement rather than physical contact.” Whispering, right from the start, was about the carrot rather than the stick. “The Horse Whisperer” novel and movie (in 1995 and 1998, respectively) gave the term new life, but the formula “X whisperer” got its biggest boost from the TV show “Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan,” which aired for nine seasons beginning in 2004.
From there, whispering spread all over the lexical map. Tracy Hogg and Melinda Blau published “Secrets of the Baby Whisperer” in 2005. Several football coaches are known as “quarterback whisperers.” Consultant Bonnie Low-Kramen calls herself “The Assistant Whisperer,” not because she assists another whisperer, but because she assists assistants. On political comedy “Veep,” frustrated President Selina Meyer made a memorable request regarding obnoxious aide Jonah: “We need a Jonah whisperer, except somebody who’s gonna, like, yell in his face and call him stupid.” Clearly she was more concerned with the taming aspect of whispering than the volume.
Some terms take whispering in a slightly different direction from the equine and canine constructions. Take Jerry Greenfield, who calls himself “The Wine Whisperer.” Rather than coercing wine to do his bidding as the typical “whisperer” construction implies, “Jerry ‘de-mystifies’ the subject of wine and his writings and live presentations offer useful hints, tips, and information that add elegance and fun to every lifestyle,” his website proclaims. Similarly, lingerie store owner Donna Morton is known as “the Bra Whisperer,” due to her skill in putting women in the correctly sized bra. These terms represent a different branch of the lexical whispering willow than terms such as “quarterback whisperer” and “baby whisperer,” because Greenfield and Morton are not advising, calming, taming, or manipulating actual wine and bras, unless perhaps they’ve had too much wine. Instead, they’re savvy marketers taking advantage of the mostly positive associations with whispering.
The “X whisperer” format, thanks to these two branches in meaning, is flexible enough to accommodate almost anything. There are sheep whisperers, deer whisperers, manatee whisperers, printer whisperers, lizard whisperers, beer whisperers, book whisperers, water whisperers, lightbulb whisperers, goalie whisperers, fed whisperers, rattlesnake whisperers, and even gif whisperers. Word maven Paul McFedries defines “potty whispering” as “the technique of training an infant to go to the washroom on cue by associating the act of elimination with a brief word or sound, especially one whispered in the baby’s ear.” A different sort of bathroom-centric meaning is found in “toilet whisperer,” the role a plumber plays when quieting a noisy (and inefficient) commode. An Australian political adviser calls himself by the euphemistic title “preference whisperer.” No matter your need, there’s a whisperer for that.
But whisperers aren’t always helpful. Another sense of “whisperer” is negative, old, and still relevant in some current uses — particularly the Bannon references. The Oxford English Dictionary defines one meaning of “whisperer” as “one who communicates something quietly or secretly; esp. a secret slanderer or tale-bearer.” This is a whisperer in the tradition of Shakespeare’s Iago and mythology’s Loki: a cowardly sneak who poisons ears and minds. The King James Bible lists one of the top dangers of listening to whisperers: “A whisperer separateth chiefe friends.”
This nefarious type of whisperer quietly pulls the strings like a puppet master, another term often applied to Bannon. So while anyone would be grateful for a dog whisperer who can convince their poodle to piddle outdoors, most people would be concerned if they thought that the most powerful person in the world was just well-trained. That kind of whispering could make a mime scream.Mark Peters is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.