I'm interested in the etymology of the expression "phew".

My online chambers dictionary says it's "a half-formed whistle". This leaves more questions than it answers, such as "why a half-formed whistle?" (as if I have a feeling of 'disgust, exhaustion, surprise, impatience, relief' I'm not tempted to whistle or half whistle) and "why is it spelt with a 'ph' rather than the more obvious 'f'?".

Various sources say the word originates from c.1600. I perhaps naively thought that words with 'ph' in them were in general imports from other languages (e.g. greek) where a 'phi' like letter existed.

So where does 'phew' come from?

  • 1
    The 'ph' is to differentiate onomatopoeia from a regular word. – 54 69 6D Sep 11 '16 at 17:05
  • @54696D taking a random list (kathytemean.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/onomatopoeia-word-list) as a sample, 'phew' is the only onomatopoeic word with a 'ph', so it can hardly be a popular change. Why not (e.g.) 'fyoo'? – abligh Sep 11 '16 at 17:08
  • My question: did whew represent the same whistle as phew? – Peter Shor Sep 11 '16 at 17:11
  • @abligh To me, it seems that 'fyoo' would be a odd spelling considering there aren't many words that start with 'fy'. And most words with a 'yoo' sound are simply spelled with the letter u. – 54 69 6D Sep 11 '16 at 17:16
  • 1
    Both phew and whew are onomatopoeic words that imitate the sound of expiration/exhalation, especially a subdued expiration. – Drew Sep 11 '16 at 17:17

I would surmise that it came from an exaggerated sigh. When one is sighing out of boredom, frustration, and the like, one might take a deep breath and release the air through the side of one’s mouth in a puff-making a noise that, to my ear, sounds like a pew or phew. I’m guessing that phew is the official word for that utterance.

  • 1
    Well, there ain't no "official" word, but "phew" is as good a spelling as any for the sound that is quite natural to make and has it's origin in the human body/brain, not any ancient language. – Hot Licks Sep 17 '16 at 12:34

In a comment, John Lawler wrote:

It's the sound that comes first. It's not vocalized, but neither is a whistle. What it is is a low-velocity whistle without a sharply-defined vibration site. The spelling is not official, since it's an interjection and not a real word; it's meant to imitate the sound, i.e, there is no etymology. The /f/ and /u/ are because the lips are rounded and closely spaced; in fact the /f/ is a bilabial fricative [ɸ], not labiodental [f] like it normally is. The /i/ represents the tongue's movement upward toward the final /u/, compressing the air.

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