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, 2016 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, 2016 at 17:08
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    My question: did whew represent the same whistle as phew? Sep 11, 2016 at 17:11
  • 2
    Both phew and whew are onomatopoeic words that imitate the sound of expiration/exhalation, especially a subdued expiration.
    – Drew
    Sep 11, 2016 at 17:17
  • 1
    The word "phew" is imitative of a long,exasperated,exhausted exhalation,also suggesting the appreciated end of a strenuous,laborious task.If there was still more to do, instead of vocalizing a "phew",an inhalation would occur.
    – Bill S.
    Sep 13, 2016 at 18:59

3 Answers 3


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, 2016 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.


As language goes it's akin to an ancient day emoji. An expressive onomatopoeia that has no real purpose other than to emphasise to others the emotion that may otherwise have been held in the body/mind. Phew to my mind is an expression of relief.

  • 1
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