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Clean as a whistle

Posted by James Briggs on July 27, 2004

In Reply to: Clean as a whistle posted by ESC on July 27, 2004

: : The origin of the phrase "clean as a whistle" is?

: CLEAN AS A WHISTLE - "One possibility is that the old simile describes the whistling sound of a sword as it swishes through the air to decapitate someone, and an early 19th century quotation does suggest this connection: 'A first rate shot.(his) head taken off as clean as a whistle.' The expression is proverbial, at least since the 18th century, when Robert Burns used a variation on it. More likely the basic idea suggests the clear, pure sound a whistle makes, or the slippery smooth surface of a willow stick debarked to make a whistle. But there is also a chance that the phrase may have originally been 'as clean as a whittle,' referring to a piece of smooth wood after it is whittled.'" (From the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997.)

: Another source states: "Robert Burns, in his poem, 'Earnest Cry,' used 'toom' ('empty') rather than 'clean' - 'Paint Scotland greetan owre her thrissle; Her mutchkin stoup as toom's a whissle' - and other writers have had the whistle clear, dry, pure or other adjective. The basic intent, however, is to indicate that, for a sweet, pure sound from a whistle or reed, the tube must be clean and dry." (From Heavens to Betsy! and Other Curious Sayings by Charles Earle Funk, Harper & Row, New York, 1955.)

: And a third: ".As every old-timer can tell you, a good whistle made from a reed or a piece of wood emits a clear tone - but it is easily damaged. Even small particles of debris, or a few drops of moisture will change the sound of a handmade instrument. In order to emit the pure notes intended by its maker, a whistle has to be absolutely clean. Anything or anyone as clean as a brand-new whistle or as clear as its sound is bound to be good. All of which means that an organization or person called as 'clean as a whistle' has been judged to be guiltless or flawless." (From Why You Say It: The Fascinating Stories Behind over 600 Everyday Words and Phrasesby Webb Garrison, Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville, Tenn., 1992.)

Alternatively the origin may be the clean appearance of a just carved wooden whistle. Personally, I think it may well relate to locomotives where the brass, especially the whistle was always bright and gleaming.

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