4

The term, according to the Oxford Online Dictionary, means:

whistle-blower
A person who informs on a person or organization regarded as engaging in an unlawful or immoral activity.

Also from the American Heritage Dictionary:

whistleblower
One who reveals wrongdoing within an organization to the public or to those in positions of authority: "The Pentagon's most famous whistleblower is ... hoping to get another chance to search for government waste" (Washington Post).

According to Wikipedia :

The term whistle-blower comes from the whistle a referee uses to indicate an illegal or foul play. US civic activist Ralph Nader is said to have coined the phrase, but he in fact put a positive spin on the term in the early 1970s to avoid the negative connotations found in other words such as "informers" and "snitches".

It seems that whistleblower has acquired a positive connotation, but how does it differ from "informer" ? Or is it actually used as a synonyms of the above mentioned terms with a negative connotation?

Is a whistleblower someone who always act in the public interest and for this reason the term has a positive connotation?

  • 2
    It's worth noting that (as is often the case) the Wikipedia article contains some interesting info, but is incredibly badly written and very confusing. There is very little point asking on here "about a wikipedia article" as the response will only be "Wikipedia articles are crap." – Fattie Jun 10 '16 at 12:08
  • 2
    "Whistleblower" has not acquired a positive connotation. It is a hugely positive word, and has only ever been used in a positive way, and was invented to be used in a positive way. Note that the OED definition is entirely and totally positive. – Fattie Jun 10 '16 at 12:09
5
+100

Dictionary definitions and discussions of 'whistleblower'

Since the early 1970s, whistleblower does indeed seem to have had a strongly positive connotation in most popular usage, at least in the United States. William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary (2008) has an interesting entry for the term:

whistleblower A government employee who "goes public" with complaints of mismanagement or corruption in his agency.

On June 13, 1977, the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington called together a "conference on whistleblowing" to focus "on government harassment of workers who publicly disclose mismanagement, illegality and other wrongdoing by agency heads." In December of that year, Village Voice writers James Ridgeway and Alexander Cockburn used the expression in print: "Then there is the case of whistle-blower Dr. J. Anthony Morris. He has long argued against government innoculation programs (including the swine-flu-shot fiasco). Morris recently lost his case in the Civil Service Commission."

The figurative blowing of the policeman's whistle can be a reason for, or an excuse for, being fired. After widespread layoffs at the CIA in late 1977, John Kendall of the Los Angeles Times wrote about one of those dismissed: "For half his career he says he considered himself a 'whistle blower' who tried to correct perceived faults in the CIA's domestic operation." When the CIA retorted that the man had been fired for insubordination, the ex-employee said he "became a 'whistleblower' to correct {abuses} with full realization he was harming his career."

Whistleblower has a positive connotation (contrary to its predecessor slang term, whistler, for "police informer"); the phrase portrays a public servant risking his job by publicly making noise to call attention to a scandal. A related term is leaker [cross reference omitted], which connotes stealthiness in exposure and describes an employee not willing to risk dismissal by becoming known as a SOURCE.

Grant Barrett, The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang (2004) traces the expression farther back than the 1970s, with some surprising negative citations from the earlier years:

whistleblower n. a person who publicly reveals inside information, esp. concerning wrongdoing. Hence whistleblowing.

1958 Mansfield News-Journal (Ohio) (Oct 10) 25: The whistleblower on that $50,000 a month call-girl story was a witch, who tried to tap Bea Garfield, alleged madam, for $250.

1960 New York Times (Apr. 15) 44: In slamming the door on Mr. Hoffa's ambitions Mr. Hall, who also is president of the Seafarer's International Union, made a personal attack against the teamster president. He described Mr. Hoffa as a "notorious wink," a "whistle blower" and an "opportunist."

1971 P. Boffey, in Science (Feb. 12) 550: Some 200 or more persons attended the conference, and a number of the nation's more publicized whistle blowers described their personal experiences.

1977 T. McAdams, in Academy of Mgmt. Rev. (Apr.) 203: Protection for the whistle blower could only accelerate accomplishment of that task.

1991 Newsweek (Nov. 11) 12: Anita Hill is a whistleblower for human decency.

Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang, first edition (1960) has no entry for whistleblower but confirms Safire's note that whistler was a slang term for "informer":

whistler n. 1 A police car. Some underworld use since c1930. 2 A police informer. Underworld and police use since c1935.

Wentworth & Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang, second supplemented edition (1967/1975) adds an entry for whistle blower:

whistle blower A person who informs against another to the authorities; stool pigeon; tattletale.

Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) has this:

whistle blower n by 1970 A person who makes an accusation of wrongdoing, illegality, etc: Thanks to yet another whistle blower, it is now known that even the cost of the one-inch square plastic caps ... has flown as high as the planes—Time/ ... trading inside information with whistle-blowers and publicity seekers—Washingtonian

-------------------

Update (October 2, 2019): Early derogatory use of 'whistle blower'/'whistle blowing'

An Elephind newspaper database search finds a slightly earlier instance than the one cited in The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang in which an editorial writer uses "whistle blower" in a seemingly derogatory way to describe a university coach who has made unflattering allegations against rival schools. From "Sports Time Out ... With Bob Fouts: Cas Speaks Up," in the [San Francisco, California] Monitor (April 25, 1958):

A letter from [University of] Oregon football coach Len Casanova comes to the defense of the man we named as “whistle blower” in last week’s column, Oregon [basketball] coach Steve Belko.

Len writes: "Knowing Steve as I do, I was positive that he wouldn't have made the statements reported. Although they do not come out and frankly state he was referring to private colleges and universities, the way it was written would certainly lead one to believe so. (Editor's note: The NCWC wire story stated Belko actually named Seattle, USF, St. Mary's, Portlnd, and Gonzaga.)

"Being a Santa Clara graduate and former coach there, I questioned Belko about his statements. He immediately got in touch with the newspaper involved, and I think it was definitely proved that he was misquoted."

Fouts's column in the April 11, 1958, issue of the Monitor had quoted Belko (as reported in the [Portland] Oregonian) as saying "The NCAA must face the fact that independent or private schools such as Seattle are gathering players on a basis with which state institutions and schools allied in a major conference cannot hope to compete." Moreover, said Fouts,

Lumping Seattle, USF, St. Mary’s, Portland, and Gonzaga together, he [Belko] charged them with using “hired hands and “tramp" athletes, and having academic standards below those of the PCC [Pacific Coast Conference, an athletic league consisting of teams from major West Coast universities].

A similar sense of "whistle blowing" seems to be at work a year-and-a-half earlier in an extremely bare-bones item titled "'Whistle Blowing'," in the San Bernardino [California] Sun (November 15, 1956):

Stanford (UP) — President Wallace Sterling of Stanford University blasted "whistle blowing" attempts against Stanford by other Pacific Coast Conference schools penalized for athletic code violations as "a misdirection of energy."

Two articles published in the Stanford University student newspaper shed further light on this controversy. From Jerry Kelly, "Looking It Over," in the Stanford [California] Daily (October 31, 1956):

The lid flew off the UCLA scandal early this year when a former Bruin fullback, George Stephenson, volunteered information about the illegal practices at UCLA.

Stephenson testified that an office was set up in Westwood Village as a front to distribute over §11,000 in cash to the grid squad each year. This undercover payment was in addition to the $75 a month normally allotted players for campus employment.

...

In retaliation for the whistle-blowing against the Bruins, certain alumni from UCLA proceeded to "get the goods" on other PCC institutions, especially the three other California schools. Through counter-espionage, agents were able to uncover illegal practices at Southern California and Cal.

And from "Sterling Gives Reasons for Stand in PCC Turmoil," in the Stanford [California] Daily (November 4, 1958):

"If an institution of higher learning will not work to honor a compact freely agreed to, then it has debased itself and its purpose," President Wallace Sterling of Stanford declared in an article on the Pacific Coast Conference Code violations in the November issue of the Stanford Review.

The Review, published for its 20,000 members by the Stanford Alumni Association, will appear next week. The article was prepared for alumni in response to requests from graduates for a statement of the University's position.

Stanford has not engaged in "whistle-blowing" on other Conference schools or self-righteousness, Dr. Sterling said.

"Our concern has been to make our word as good as our bond by doing our best to live up to the obligation of our Conference compact with our sister institutions as well as to Stanford's own Fundamental Standard of honesty and good conduct by which our students govern themselves," the president stated.

...

Whistle-blowing—the efforts of an institution found guilty of Code violations to bring to light violations by another institution—was described by Dr. Sterling as "a misdirection of energy and animus which placed under additional strain such good faith as existed among the Conference institutions."

It thus appears that during the period 1956–1958, in the Far West U.S., the term "whistle blower" had a specific meaning involving the disclosure of misconduct (or rumors of misconduct) committed by rival university sport programs in retaliation for disclosures about one's own sports program's disclosed misconduct. It is easy to see why this behavior would not strike disinterested third parties as honorable, high-minded, or public-spirited, but rather as self-interested, vengeful, and vindictive.

The common element of athletic department intrigues in these early examples suggests that "whistle blower" may have arisen as an ironic way of likening such conduct to a referee stopping play during a game to point out and impose a penalty for some infraction or foul committed by one of the teams.

-------------------

How did 'whistleblower' evolve from 'stool pigeon' into 'brave truthteller'?

To judge from the earliest examples listed in The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang and from the definition of whistle blower in the 1975 edition of Dictionary of American Slang—as well as from the newspaper examples quoted from the period 1956–1958—whistleblower was by no means a positive term when it first emerged. But it benefited from a couple of things: in the early 1970s, when it began its transition in meaning from someone vile and abject to someone high minded and virtuous, it was not an especially well established or widely recognized synonym for the older terms fink, snitch, squealer, and stool pigeon; and unlike those terms, it didn't have a particularly unpleasant image associated with it (fink was originally Pink, as in "Pinkerton agent," and rat fink was in popular use by the middle 1960s; snitch was originally a verb meaning to steal; squealer has long had associations with pigs; and stool pigeon alludes to using captive pigeons tied to a stool to lure free pigeons into entrapment).

The person who may be most responsible for the transformation of whistleblower into an honorable term is Ralph Nader. Sometime in 1971, Nader and Donald Ross published Action for Change: A Student's Manual for Public Interest Organizing (1971) [combined snippets], which made the following argument:

The individual must have an opportunity and a right to blow the whistle on his organization—to make higher appeals to outside authorities, to professional societies, to citizen groups—rather than be forced to condone illegality, consumer hazards, oppression of the disadvantaged, seizure of public resources, and the like. The ethical whistle-blower may be guided by the Golden Rule, a refusal to aid and abet crimes, occupational standards of ethics, or a gen[ui]ne sense of patriotism. To deny him or her the protections of the law and supportive groups is to permit the institutionalization of organizational tyranny throughout the society at the grass roots where it matters.

In May 1971, Nader also published an article called "Responsibility and the Professional Society," which made similar points about the duty of professionals in industry and government to report wrongdoing by their organizations. In February 1972, he published yet another article on the same theme, "The Scientist and His Indentured Professional Societies." And in 1972, he co-edited a book called Whistleblowing that included an essay he wrote titled "An Anatomy of Whistle Blowing." In this essay, Nader presents the whistleblower as a hero of the (then) present age:

Today, arbitrary treatment of citizens by powerful institutions has assumed a new, no less insidious form than that which prevailed in an earlier time [under "the royal tyranny of King George III"]. The "organization" has emerged and spread its invisible chains. Within the structure of the organization there has taken place an erosion of both human values and the broader value of human beings as the possibility of dissent within the hierarchy has become so restricted that common candor requires uncommon courage. The large organization is lord and manor, and most of its employees have been desensitized much as were medieval peasants who never knew they were serfs. ...

...

Corporate employees are among the first to know about industrial dumping of mercury or fluoride sludge into waterways, defectively designed automobiles, or undisclosed adverse effects of prescription drugs and pesticides. They are the first to grasp the technical capabilities to prevent existing product or pollution hazards. But they are very often the last to speak out, much less to refuse to be recruited for acts of corporate or governmental negligence or predation. Staying silent in the face of a professional duty has a direct impact on the level of consumer and environmental hazards. But this awareness has done little to upset the slavish adherence to "following company orders."

...

It is clear that hundreds and often thousands of people are privy to such information [about corporate and governmental malfeasance] but choose to remain silent within their organizations. Some are conscience-stricken in so doing and want guidance. Actually the general responsibility is made clear for the professional by codes of ethics. These codes invariably etch the primary allegiance to the public interest, while the Code of Ethics for United States Government Service does the same: "Put loyalty to the highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to persons, party, or Government department." The difficulty rest in the judgment to be exercised by the individual and its implementation. Any potential whistle blower has to ask and try to answer a number of questions: ...

Coming as it did at the zenith of popular dissatisfaction with the System, the Status Quo, and the Man, Nader's presentation of whistleblowing as an act of defiance and greater-good morality seems to have struck a chord with the public. It didn't hurt that the villains in his description weren't small-time crooks or antiheroic mobsters, but the government and big business—the chief apostles and beneficiaries of mindless conformity, cynical exploitation, and genteel corruption.

Nader's various publications generated considerable comment—positive and negative—in professional journals and other media. When U.S. federal and state lawmakers in the early 1970s took up the issue of protecting public-spirited informants from malevolent employers, they adopted whistle-blower as the term of art for such informants.


Conclusions

The term whistleblower was used as early as 1956 as a pejorative term for an informer who sought to incriminate others for personal gain. But the sense of the term became far more positive and sympathetic in the early 1970s when Ralph Nader and other writers began using it to refer to a person who, as a public service and from a sense of moral obligation, reports wrongdoing by his or her corporation or government agency. State and federal laws eventually adopted the term, too.

Today, few people in the United States have any memory of hearing whistleblower used as a pejorative term, and modern dictionaries present it in a broadly sympathetic light. The multitude of unflattering terms available to describe an informer whose motives are less honorable than a modern-day whistleblower's gives writers and speakers little reason to go against the grain and use whistleblower in its original negative sense of "fink, snitch, squealer, or stool pigeon."

  • There are repeated references to "make public" or "go public" in the whistleblower definitions. Should this be taken to mean reporting within channels, such as to senior management or via a formal complaints process is not whistleblowing? That to be a whistleblower you have to speak directly to the wider public? – Jontia Oct 7 at 9:08
  • @Jontia: Good question. At least in the sphere of government, it seems to me, "whistleblowing" today refers to following a process for registering complaints about misconduct committed by hierarchically superior people in one's office or branch of government. If I am correct about this, whistleblowing is not distinguished by "going public" with the charges, but by "going formal" with them—that is, by entering the prescribed process (whatever its details may be) for submitting a complaint about such misconduct. The whistleblowing process is thus a form of officially approved due process. ... – Sven Yargs Oct 8 at 0:51
  • 1
    ...In this respect, "whistleblowing" in its modern procedural sense is fundamentally different from "leaking"—going outside any formal process to share information or charges or rumors of alleged misconduct with news media or others. I don't know, however, how widely this notion of whistleblowing "by the book" is understood by everyday, nonspecialist English speakers. Not well, I imagine. – Sven Yargs Oct 8 at 0:51
3

Not basing this on any innate knowledge or dictionary reference, but to me an informer implies someone who provides information to a third party for personal gain. You usually employ, or form a relationship with, informers and they inform a particular entity (police informers, journalist informers, like an 'inside man').

Whistleblowers on the other hand are blowing the whistle publicly to publicise illegal or foul-play, and there's no implication of a gain or benefit to be had from this on the whistleblower's part.

  • Thanks, so whistleblower has a positive connotation probably for the reason you mention? – user067531 Jun 10 '16 at 8:41
  • 2
    Indeed, often a whistleblower is taking a risk of serious loss, eg of employment, or in some cases of their life. – Colin Fine Jun 10 '16 at 11:07
  • 4
    @JoeBlow You keep asserting that "'Whistleblower' is a ... positive term.", but you've given no substantiation of that. You've twice referred to the OED, but not quoted its content. (We do not all have subscriptions to the OED.) Is it conceivable that it has (slightly) different connotations in different EN-speaking countries? (I'm not necessarily disagreeing with you, altho' I my gut feeling is that's it's not always used positively.) – TrevorD Jun 10 '16 at 13:29
  • 3
    If I "tell" on my colleagues, (give reserved information to my employer that involves my coworkers) I'm called a "snitch" by them, which is not complimentary. I'm inclined to believe that a "whistleblower" could be seen positively by the general public, especially if that person reveals some type of scandal involving politicians, but less so if he "betrays" the trust of his coworkers. Context is of fundamental importance. – Mari-Lou A Jun 10 '16 at 13:39
  • 1
    A whistleblower supposedly acts out of some sense of moral rectitude. Needless to say, morals are not prioritized the same way by everyone. Whistleblowers can still be pawns in someone else's game; and they may choose to act only after they discover they have little, if anything, to loose and too late for any real good to come of it. It also implies there is a large asymmetry in power and influence, i.e,, it's a David vs. Goliath situation. As far as I know, it is only used to describe an individual vs a powerful organization and its policies, not against other individuals. – Phil Sweet Jun 10 '16 at 21:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.