why do people say clean as a whistle

The books I consulted disagree about the meaning and provenance of this phrase. At one extreme is this simple entry from Robert Chapman Barbara Kipfer,
Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995): clean as a whistle (or a hound's tooth ) adj phr first form by 1828, second by 1940s But Christine Ammer, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms clean as a whistle Completely, entirely, thoroughly, as in He chopped off the branch, clean as a whistle. The allusion in this simile is unclear. It my have been a replacement for the 18th-century clear as a whistle, which alluded to the pure, clean sound of a whistle (it has few overtones). However, it was adopted to describe something thoroughly done. [Early 1800s] And Robert Hendrickson, Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins 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. And going much farther back, we have John Ker, The Archaiology of Popular English Phrases and Nursery Rhymes (1834), offering this unusual analysis: As CLEAN AS A WHISTLE; as in the phrase, "it was done as clean as a whistle:" and in the sense of, the act in question having been performed cleanly, neatly, suddenly, and without bustle. Als glij in haest er huij (wei) stil; q. e. as rapidly and imperceptibly (stilly) as whey separates from the rest of the substance (the curd); and what process can take place with greater quickness, silence, and requisite efficiency than that of the separation of whey (serum) from the curd (coagulum), throughout which, the instant before, it had been homogeneously distributed. Even earlier, William Carr, The Dialect of Craven, in the West-Riding of the County of York "As clean as a whistle," a proverbial simile, signifying completely, entirely ; as, "I've lost my knife as clean as a whistle;" but I know not the propriety of this simile. The earliest Google Books match for the phrase, however, is from Joseph Reed, The Register-Office: A Farce of Two Acts Gulwell. Your Ladyship's most devotedБ Of great Inconvenience to my Family Affairs to have Richard' s Place unsupplied!


БIn Faith I believe her Layship! БSo Dick is unshipp'd and the Bond not worth a farthing! БI have lost the five hundred Pounds, as clean as a Whistle! БHe gave me such Assurances of her Ladyship's Regard, that I thought the Money as safe, as if I had it in my PocketБWho's here? Бone of my party-colour'd Customers! БOh! 'tis Lady Vixen 's Livery! Joining clean as a hound's tooth and clean as a penny (which Ker cites) as expressions allied to clean as a whistle is clean as a button-stick, which Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, fifth edition (1961), defines as "(of a soldier) smart in appearance. A button-stick was a device for polishing buttons. " The opposite of house-itosis? Dear Word Detective:P 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. P Someone suggested that it meant all impurities were blown out. P I volunteered to find out what it meant by going to my word detective guru (you). P Any ideas? Bea. Gee, it must be nice to live where folks actually wonder aloud about word origins. P Don t get me wrong; living in the country definitely has its advantages.


P It s quiet, except for the nearly constant gunfire and frequent meth lab explosions. P The air is clean, if you don t count the toxic clouds emitted by the paper mill a few miles upwind of us. P Best of all, you get to meet all sorts of wildlife, only a few of which want to kill you. P But I must admit that the conversational arts are not exactly at high tide around here. P 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. P 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. P The word whistle is, not surprisingly, very old, and was formed in imitation of the sound of whistling itself. P 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). P 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 ). P 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. P 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. P 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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