Every time I hear this idiom, I cogitate to no avail as to its sense. Why is it a whistle, and not a lantern, or an axe?
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Etymonline indicates the first appearance of this phrase as 1878.
Take Our Word For It discusses a possible 1786 origin from a Scottish poet:
The authors also connect "clear" (as in the pure sound of a whistle) to "clean":
The Phrase Finder summarizes several origin theories, including:
The Word Detective further suggests:
If such a change has taken place, it could explain why a phrase that can be connected to complete, obvious decapitation can also mean innocence or cleanliness.
Clean as a whistle has a nearly universal association with cuts. Clean cuts are not ragged but are smooth with crisp sharp edges. The author of Whittlin' Whistles describes how to make a slip-bark whistle by sliding the bark off a branch, carving it and sliding it back into the bark, and suggests that "clean as a whistle" relates to the smooth cuts, without which, he says, the whistle will not work.
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):
But Christine Ammer, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997) has a different take on the term:
And Robert Hendrickson, Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (1997) has this meditative entry:
And going much farther back, we have John Ker, The Archaiology of Popular English Phrases and Nursery Rhymes (1834), offering this unusual analysis:
Even earlier, William Carr, The Dialect of Craven, in the West-Riding of the County of York (1828) has this:
The earliest Google Books match for the phrase, however, is from Joseph Reed, The Register-Office: A Farce of Two Acts (1761):
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."
Perhaps taken for "as clear as a whistle" (the expression has existed) ; either because the sound is clear, sharp, or because, of course, it does not work if obstructed.
Because a whistle will not blow if it is wet. The little ball in the whistle will still roll around, but the sound will be muffled severely.
The Free Dictionary has a comment to this idiom. They say the idiom is unclear. I have the impression that it is rather dated and an empty shell. The saying may be used but it does not convey a clear picture or a clear idea. Empty words. http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/clean+as+a+whistle
protected by Community♦ Oct 14 '13 at 11:08
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