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shameless pleading

Whistle, clean as a

The opposite of house-itosis?

Dear Word Detective:  While enjoying a cup of tea with several of my poet friends, someone described her kitchen as being “clean as a whistle,” at which point one of the women (she’s a Brit), wondered where the expression came from.  Someone suggested that it meant all impurities were blown out.  I volunteered to find out what it meant by going to my word detective guru (you).  Any ideas? — Bea.

Gee, it must be nice to live where folks actually wonder aloud about word origins.  Don’t get me wrong; living in the country definitely has its advantages.  It’s quiet, except for the nearly constant gunfire and frequent meth lab explosions.  The air is clean, if you don’t count the toxic clouds emitted by the paper mill a few miles upwind of us.  Best of all, you get to meet all sorts of wildlife, only a few of which want to kill you.  But I must admit that the conversational arts are not exactly at high tide around here.  I’m beginning to suspect that these groundhogs don’t even speak English.

Still, most of these critters are very clean; clean, one might say, as a whistle, especially the groundhogs, which are also known as “whistle pigs” for their ability to carry a tune.  Human beings, however, are generally better whistlers, and “whistling,” producing a clear, pure musical sound by blowing through one’s pursed lips, is probably humankind’s oldest musical skill.  The word “whistle” is, not surprisingly, very old, and was formed in imitation of the sound of whistling itself.  “Whistle” as a noun, of course, can refer both to the act or sound of whistling and a mechanical apparatus for generating a whistling sound.

As a nearly universal human skill, “whistling” has produced a dizzying number of idioms, from “to wet one’s whistle” (to take a drink of alcohol, likening the mouth or throat to a whistle) to “dog whistle politics” (comparing a narrowly-focused coded political message to a high-pitched whistle used to call dogs) to “go whistle” (meaning “get lost”).

“Clean as a whistle” first appeared in print in the early 18th century, meaning “completely, absolutely, leaving no trace” (“A first rate shot; …head taken off as clean as a whistle,” 1849).  The sense of “pure, unsullied, spotless” that your friend used came a bit later, as did such variations as “sharp as a whistle” and “slick as a whistle.”

It’s probable, however, that the original phrase was actually “clear as a whistle,” referring to the ability of a whistle to be heard in a noisy environment, and that the initial meaning was “definitely” or “unambiguously” (“I heard you clear as a whistle, Boss”).  The mutation to “clean as a whistle” (using “clean” in the sense of “sharp and definite” found in “clean cut”) with the meaning “completely, absolutely” was a short jump from that “definite” meaning.  “Clean” was then reinterpreted in popular usage to mean “spotless,” and “clean as a whistle” came to be used to mean “perfectly clean.”

An interesting parallel to “clean as a whistle” may be found in the phrase “clean as a hound’s tooth,” which has been used to mean “spotless” since about 1900.  Hounds are not known for their oral hygiene, of course, so it’s likely that this “clean” originally meant “sharp,” just as in “clean as a whistle.”

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