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shameless pleading

Dorothy Dixer

Low and slow.

Dear Word Detective: In my line of work (medical research), I often attend presentations by students discussing their work. Occasionally, at question time, the student’s supervisor or colleague will ask them a “Dorothy Dixer,” a pre-arranged question that the student has a pre-arranged answer for. This can give the student some confidence in answering questions (as well as perhaps leaving less time for more difficult ones). I’ve found out who Dorothy Dix was but do you have any information on when and where the term originated? — Rhys Fogarty.

That’s a fascinating question. The name Dorothy Dix rang a small bell at the back of my mind, but, after a bit of poking around online, I realized that I was thinking of Dorothea Dix, the great 19th century crusader for the rights and welfare of the mentally ill in the US. I’m still not sure why I happen to know anything about Dorothea Dix, but I suspect it may be due to my many years of reading Reader’s Digest in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms.

Dorothy Dix, on the other hand, was the nom de plume of Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer (1861–1951), a syndicated newspaper columnist and, during the 1930s and 40s, probably the most widely-read columnist on earth. Dix was an advice columnist, the forerunner of Dear Abby and Ann Landers in the US, answering readers’ questions and tales of woe with uplifting answers and no-nonsense advice. One of her most popular columns, reprinted frequently by popular demand, was “Dictates for a Happy Life,” which covered all the bases from “Make up your mind to be happy” (Dictate One) to “Don’t spend your life brooding over the mistakes you have made or the sorrows that have befallen on you.” (Dictate Eight, apparently addressed to those who flubbed Dictate One) and, if all else fails, “Keep busy” (Dictate Ten).

It is said that during her heyday Dix received 100,000 letters per week, but that fact didn’t quash the persistent rumor that she invented some of her more colorful reader questions as pretexts for “answers” she wanted to write. This particular brand of creativity is, shall we say, frowned on in journalism. Nothing was ever proven, but the “Dix makes up her own questions” rumor was widespread by the time of her death in 1951.

Now things get a bit weird. Although Dorothy Dix is largely forgotten in her native US, her column was syndicated all around the world, including in Australia, where her name lives on today in a most peculiar (and not very complimentary) way. A “Dorothy Dixer” in Australian political jargon is a “planted” (pre-arranged) question asked during a session of Parliament in order to give the respondent an opportunity to give a prepared reply. The Macquarie Dictionary (“Australia’s National Dictionary”) defines it as “a question asked in parliament specifically to allow a propagandist reply by a minister.” The Oxford English Dictionary dates the earliest print use of “Dorothy Dixer” to 1970, but use of “Dorothy Dix” by itself to mean a planted question has been found as far back as 1941. The use you’ve encountered, students being asked rote questions, is an expanded sense of the term.

Of course, “Dorothy Dixer” questions are hardly unknown in the rest of the world, and it’s a bit of a puzzle why the phrase isn’t used here in the US. Our closest analogue is probably the “softball” question posed to politicians (or their “spokescritters” in the parlance of the late and sorely missed Molly Ivins) by friendly journalists. So-called in allusion to the low and slow pitches of a softball game (compared to conventional “hardball” baseball), the “softball” question functions largely as an opportunity for the recipient to trot out the latest talking points. Softball questions aren’t actually “planted,” but they don’t have to be. They just have to be pleasingly mild and wide enough to accommodate a full load of flapdoodle.

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