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Author Topic: clean as a whistle?
Hammerhead
I'm Dreaming of a White Sale


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Where does this saying come from? I mean whistles probably arent very clean.

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All that exists is atoms and empty space, everything else is just opinion -Democratus

Posts: 20 | From: California | Registered: Nov 2003  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a moderator
diddy
Markdown, the Herald Angels Sing


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Probbaly from people with clean shiny whistles as part of a clean and crisp uniform, as in a cop's uniform.

I believe british cops used to have brass whistles which would have a habit of tarnishing. My guess is that it was part of the regular cleaning along with the uniform to make sure your equipment was in working order.

Now i have nothing to back that up with, but it makes sense to me...

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W.W.F.S.M.D?
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Malruhn
The "Was on Sale" Song


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I always thought it came from the classic tea pot. If it is dirty and icky, the "whistle" won't come through - and therefore, if you hear a nice "clean whistle"... you know the pot is clean.

I have NO basis for this assumption, just an opinion.

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Opinions aren't excuses to remain ignorant about subjects, nor are they excuses to never examine one's beliefs & prejudices...

Babies are like tattoos. You see other peoples' & they're cool, but yours is never as good & you can't get rid of it.

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Jay Tea
The "Was on Sale" Song


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A tricky etymology, summed up by this excerpt from takemyword.com.

quote:
Famed Scottish poet Robert "Rabbie" Burns (in his Author's Earnest Cry, 1786) provides us the first use of anything resembling the phrase clean as a whistle in writing: "Her mutchkin stowp as toom’s a whissle" For those readers not fluent in Lowlands Scots, this meant "Her pint bucket is as empty as a whistle". As a pair of dyed-in-the-wool penny-whistlers, we conjecture that Rabbie was familiar with this instrument, the implication being that if a whistle is not clear of obstruction inside, then it will not play properly.

Some have suggested that as clean as a whistle actually derives from as clear as a whistle. That explanation has the "clear" form meaning "pure" (as the pure sound of a whistle) and suggests that it is not a large leap from "pure" to "clean". We have found nothing to support this notion, however. A writer in 1828 defines as clean as a whistle as "a proverbial simile, signifying completely, entirely" but we have to wait until 1880 before as clear as a whistle appears in print.



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This is where I come up with something right? Something really clever...

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arnie
Jingle Bell Hock


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The Word Detective also suggests the phrase was originally "clear as a whistle".
quote:
Christine Ammer, in her book "Have A Nice Day -- No Problem, A Dictionary of Cliches," points to the phrase "clear as a whistle," very common in the 18th century. While spoken commands might be misunderstood in a noisy environment, no one could mistake a loud whistle for anything else, so "clear as a whistle" came to mean "unmistakable" or "unambiguous."

The later substitution of "clean" meaning "completely" for "clear" therefore makes a certain amount of sense, but the subsequent drift of "clean" in the phrase to mean "pure" is what has led to folks like you wondering "what's so clean about whistles?"



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De gustibus non est disputandum.

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TB Tabby
We Wish You a Merry Giftmas


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"Uncle John's Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader" tells a different story:

"The phrase appeared at the beginning of the 19th century, describing the whistling noise made as a sword tears through the air to decapitate a victim cleanly, in a single stroke."

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I like to go down to the playground and watch the kids run and jump and scream, because they don't know I'm only using blanks.

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Jay Tea
The "Was on Sale" Song


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Interesting TB Tabby - i'd be further interested to know what environment produced so many whistling swords so as to coin a phrase. I don't think 19th century England was overly familiar with the sword as a weapon - cavalry were using them and swinging them a fair bit in the 19th century, but would the subtle ringing of metal be heard in the midst of a Crimean skirmish for example?

Also it seems incongruous to describe a 'whistling sword' or even a decapitation as 'clean as a whistle' - if the sword was actually whistling then devices such a similie are out of place. It's a tricky etymology but i'd need more convincing to acknowledge it being anything to do with swords [Wink]

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This is where I come up with something right? Something really clever...

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