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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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Perhaps it relates to steam whistles. A steam whistle would be very clean — perhaps even sterile. –  user47077 Jul 1 '13 at 22:24
    
If you're used to the spit-and-polish cleaning method, whistles are self-cleaning. That's just my wild guesswork, though. –  user867 Jul 2 '13 at 2:36
    
If the derivation of "clean as a whistle" has something to do with a "clean cut," then I propose that the only connection to this explanation is the whistle a sword makes as it leaves its sheath, just prior to its use. This comes from the encyclopedia of instinct and common sense. –  user54072 Oct 13 '13 at 23:14
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5 Answers 5

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Etymonline indicates the first appearance of this phrase as 1878.

Take Our Word For It discusses a possible 1786 origin from a 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"... this meant "Her pint bucket is as empty as a whistle". ...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.

The authors also connect "clear" (as in the pure sound of a whistle) to "clean":

The Phrase Finder summarizes several origin theories, including:

  • 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.' (Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins)
  • Robert Burns, in his poem, 'Earnest Cry,' used 'toom' ('empty') rather than 'clean' ...other writers have had the whistle clear, dry, pure or other adjective. ...for a sweet, pure sound from a whistle or reed, the tube must be clean and dry. (Heavens to Betsy & Other Curious Sayings)
  • Anything or anyone as clean as a brand-new whistle or as clear as its sound is bound to be good. ... an organization or person called as 'clean as a whistle' has been judged to be guiltless or flawless (Why You Say It)

The Word Detective further suggests:

The phrase actually has two meanings: "clean or pure" and "absolutely, completely." "Utterly or completely" is the original 18th century meaning -- a roof blown off in a tornado might be said to have been torn off "clean as a whistle," leaving no remnants. The "pure or unsullied" meaning ("Wash that deck until it's clean as a whistle, sailor") came later ...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. ..."clear as a whistle" came to mean "unmistakable" or "unambiguous." ...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?"

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.

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Thinking on The Phrase Finder's first theory: I'm not so sure a sword substantial enough to decapitate someone could be humanly swung fast enough to whistle (outside of Hollywood that is). Might be a good question for this guy. –  Callithumpian Jul 15 '11 at 17:26
    
@Callithumpian, good point. Perhaps writers went swoosh with swords long before Hollywood? –  aedia λ Jul 15 '11 at 17:34
    
@Callithumpian, @aedia: The sword doesn't have to be substantial in size or weight; it just has to be well made. I'm pretty sure a katana, in the right hands, could decapitate a person with a single blow (while being swung fast enough to whistle through the air). –  bracho monacho Jul 16 '11 at 1:15
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@brachomonacho: You have got to watch the video at the link in my comment above. :D –  Callithumpian Jul 16 '11 at 2:02
    
@Callithumpian: Haha, I'm definitely not a katana-plonker... I just mentioned that weapon because it was the first that came to mind while pondering the perfect union of hardness and toughness in a steel blade. A sword of Damascus steel would probably do just as well as a katana in cleanly decapitating hapless knaves. –  bracho monacho Jul 16 '11 at 2:21
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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.

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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.

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That's true, but does that explain where the expression came from? Only some kinds of whistles use a small ball or "pea". –  aedia λ Mar 28 '13 at 21:44
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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 (1995), Third Edition:

clean as a whistle (or a hound's tooth) adj phr first form by 1828, second by 1940s Perfectly clean

But Christine Ammer, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997) has a different take on the term:

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 (1997) has this meditative entry:

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 Jon 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.

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."

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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.

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