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Whistle for it

Posted by James Briggs on November 17, 2003

In Reply to: Whistle for it posted by R. Berg on November 17, 2003

: : Last night, someone used both of these terms in the one sentence. In fact I think he confused himself and changed midstream. Anyway, I've searched the archives and found both mentioned before independently, but I was wondering if they're related. ie. Whistle for it, evolved from Whistle Dixie? Any ideas?

: Not from "whistling Dixie." The OED cites "whistle for" as early as 1605 in the sense of awaiting something in vain, doing without. There was no Dixie then. For this expression, the OED refers readers to a note about "the common superstitious practice among sailors to whistle for a wind during a calm, and to refrain from whistling during a gale." It stops short of declaring that that was the origin, though.

If you are told that you can whistle for it then it means that you are unlikely to get what you want. The saying pretty certainly goes back to the days of sailing ships. Some sailors believed that, on a calm day, the wind could be summoned by whistling. Others feared that such a whistle would raise, not a fair wind, but a storm. To them, whistling was Devil's Music. Since, in most cases neither a fair wind or a storm resulted from whistling, then the current meaning of the phrase arose.