The Whistle—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

Some of the most famous lines in cinema history were uttered by Lauren Bacall to Humphry Bogart in the 1944 Film “To Have and To Have Not.” The scene has Bogart’s character Harry “Steve” Morgan, a fishing captain in Nazi-occupied France refusing to smuggle members of the resistance on to his boat. Bacall, playing Marie “Slim” Browning, flirtatiously tries to change his mind. Just before exiting the scene, she passionately kisses him and says, “You don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together, and blow.”

Whistling among human beings goes as far back as anyone can trace; it seems to be in our DNA. The whistle, an instrument that roughly reproduces this human characteristic, also goes back almost as far as anyone can trace, starting from when humans first hollowed out a gourd or branch of a plant and found it would make a sound if blown into. Since then, such an instrument has constantly been with us. However, over the millennia it has continually changed shape, structure, and function. And it is still evolving. This is why I believe the whistle has legitimate claim to take a place of honor on the list of what I like to call “Extraordinary Ordinary Things.”


Like anything else that has been around for millennia, the definition of what constitutes a whistle has undergone dramatic metamorphosis. By simplest definition, an artificial whistle (as opposed to the whistling humans do naturally) is an instrument that produces a sound by a stream of gas blowing through it, and in particular a stream of air. Given this basic definition, a whistle may range from the noisy little instrument dangling from a gym teacher’s neck to a massive multi-piped church organ.

A key characteristic of a whistle is that it produces a pure or nearly pure sound. Not being encumbered by complex overtones means whistles can be shaped or grouped to create virtually any sound the designer wishes. Thus, in a very real sense, wind instruments in an orchestra (trumpet, clarinet, trombone, tuba, etc.) can be considered to be specialized whistles.

Human beings of course were probably whistling virtually since the dawn of time, most likely to signal their presence to others, or perhaps even to make music. What is certain is that among various cultures whistling developed into full-fledged languages.

Whistling as a language allows fluent users to transmit and comprehend a potentially unlimited number of messages over long distances. Because whistle languages are intended to carry on complex communication over long distances, it is not surprising most of them developed in sparsely populated areas where people lived at great distances from one another. Whistle languages still exist today; however, they seem to be losing ground as modern technology (telephony, email, texting, etc.) take greater and greater hold in remote parts of the planet.

The first man-made whistles are believed to have been carved out of a gourd or small tree branch when it was discovered they could be used to make a noise. And when necessary, a very loud one.

In general, whistles work by pitting streams (bursts) of air against each other. In the simplest whistle configuration, a stream of air is blown in at one end of the instrument, which then curls around inside. To get out the other end, this stream of air clashes with air blown in directly ahead of it. Sound is created by these two streams of air fighting for dominance. If you could actually observe the battle close up, you would see thousands of tiny vortices (like tornados) dancing around each other, which is perceived as sound.

The Whistle in History

Whistles have a long history with the military. They were used by the ancient Greeks to regulate the rowing stroke of galley. They were used by English crusaders to transmit orders to archers. They were also used during the age of naval sailing vessels to issue commands to sailors and to salute dignitaries, a custom that is still observed today.

The picture of a policeman blowing a whistle to control traffic, to signal “stop thief,” or to call for help is an indelible image in our brains. It seems to be something that always has been, and always will be. However, this indelible image is really less than two centuries old.

Police whistles and similar instruments used in sports, the military, and elsewhere operate by blowing air through a small opening into one end, which then passes into a chamber, and then out an exit. The chamber is equipped with a pea (small, round ball). When agitated by the flow of air, the pea jumps around, banging the sides of the chamber to give the characteristic trilling sound of this type of whistle.

This iconic type of whistle owes its existence to J. Hudson & Co of Birmingham, United Kingdom. In 1870 Joseph Hudson and his younger brother James designed the “Acme City” brass whistle, which in 1878 became the first referee whistle officially used by a football (soccer) association during a match between Nottingham and Sheffield. It quickly replaced the handkerchiefs that had previously been used by referees to signal to players.

These first sports whistles did not contain the now characteristic little pea; adding the pea produced a sound that could be heard more than a mile (1.6 km) away. However, adding the ear-splitting pea to the whistle was not a normal progression. It arose out of an accident.

One day, Hudson dropped his violin, which shattered on the floor. Noting how the discordant sound of the breaking strings traveled, Hudson wondered how this sound-amplifying phenomenon (trill effect) might be adapted to his whistle. He hit on the idea of adding a tiny round ball (pea) to the chamber.

At the time, local police were using rattles to communicate with one another over short distances, but the system was not particularly effective. Hudson then proposed his much louder pea-endowed whistles, which proved to be significantly more effective. Hudson demonstrated his whistle to Scotland Yard, London’s Metropolitan Police Service. He was awarded his first contract to equip London’s “bobbies” in 1884. And thus an icon was born.

Winning over the police in London and elsewhere to using their whistle gradually made Hudson the largest whistle manufacturer in the world. However, its hegemony was short lived. Beginning in the 1880s and 1890s, competing whistle manufacturing companies were established such as W. Dowler & Sons, J. Barrall, R. A. Walton, H. A. Ward, and A. De Courcy & Co.

The death knell for the Hudson whistle may have been sounded in 1987 when Foxcroft and Shepherd released the Fox 40 “pealess” whistle. Although a revolution in their time, pea whistles produce less sound than the Fox 40. They are also subject to jamming due to dirt, saliva, water, or ice. Moreover, a hard blow may cause the pea to stick to the walls of a chamber, thus producing no sound at all.

By contrast, having no moving parts, the pealess Fox 40 can neither jam nor freeze. Moreover, when submerged in water and then brought out, it can be blow almost immediately because the water will drain away. It has taken over from the pea whistle among sailors, lifeguards, and other people who work under intense conditions. FIFA, the governing body of international football (soccer), recommends that referees use the pealess Fox 40 whistle instead of other pealess whistles due to its unique sound and triple chamber design.

The Whistle in Culture

I am an old-time radio buff. I remember when growing up a program that particularly struck my fancy. It was called “The Whistler” (1942-1955). It was a series of half-hour psychological thrillers. Each story began with the sound of footsteps and a person whistling a slow, mournful tune. This was followed by a voice saying:

“I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, many secrets hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes, I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak!”

The haunting whistling theme was repeated a couple of times throughout the broadcast to reinforce the dramatic tension.

The stories were almost always about someone who committed what might have been the perfect crime. However, at the very last minute, something happened to expose or punish the misdeed. Often, if you paid close attention, you might have been able to anticipate how things would go awry at the end, but much of the time it came as a complete surprise.

The truly interesting thing was “The Whistler” was not simply a narrator. He interacted with the leading protagonist, getting into his or her mind to let the listeners know what the protagonist was thinking and feeling, and how this was affecting the progression of the story. In short, he acted as a kind of one-man Greek chorus.

As a kid, I was hooked; I couldn’t bear to miss a single broadcast. If you would like to experience what I did, you can listen to hundreds of half-hour episodes free online.

I had a nerve-jangling cultural encounter with a whistle shortly after I moved to Brussels in 1974. Trying out my newly acquired language skills, I was reading the television program listings in French. I came across a film with the title “Le Train Sifflera Trois Fois,” which translated into English as “The Train Will Whistle Three Times.” It was described as a classic western Oscar winner. I am not very fond of Westerns, but there are certain classic ones I very much like, so I read further. The film, made in 1952, starred Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, with the theme song by Frankie Lane. I nearly fell off of my chair. It was “High Noon!”

I could hardly believe my eyes. I know the titles of film, books, TV series, etc. are frequently changed when translated into other languages. But how could “High Noon” in English become “The Train Will Whistle Three Times” in French?

The problem was, the term “high noon” is loaded with cultural connotations. The title could have been more accurately translated into something like ”Le Duel à Midi” (The Duel at Noon), but it just wouldn’t have been the same, so the film distributor decided to base the title on a detail in the film. It was an important detail. The train did indeed whistle three times to warn the sheriff (Gary Cooper) that the outlaws who had sworn to kill him were arriving in town.

Focus on the Whistleblower

Given recent political developments in the U.S., let’s take a look at term “whistleblower.”

By simplest definition, a whistleblower is a person who exposes secret information or secretive activity the whistleblower deems to be illegal, unethical, or otherwise detrimental to the well being of others.

Given recent history, we may tend to think of whistleblowing as revealing information of political skullduggery that is likely to make the headlines. However, it may be more restricted, such as revealing to management significant violation of a company’s or an association’s stated policies, malfeasance within a charitable organization, inimical practices within a religious organization, etc.

The origin of the term is fairly obvious. It refers to someone alerting people to a danger by literally blowing a whistle, such as policemen. However, some argue that it did not really become popular to mean revealing hidden and compromising information until the 1970s. American civic activist Ralph Nader, four times an independent candidate for the office of President of the United States, is said to have popularized the term to replace other terms such as “informer” or “snitch” (betrayer), which carried negative connotations.

If their identity is made public, whistleblowers run the risk of retaliation including loss of reputation, loss of employment, harassment of themselves and their families, etc.

To obviate these potential consequences, in 1989 the Whistleblower Protection Act became U.S. federal law. Among other protections, it guarantees the whistleblower’s identity will not be revealed except with his or her consent or under extreme necessity. This is why during President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial such a strenuous effort was made to keep secret the identity of the whistleblower, whose revelations started the whole impeachment progress. Attempts to identify the whistleblower (to what end?) are still going on. If someone succeeds in “outing“ the whistleblower, they risk various types of legal actions, but probably not jail time.

The Whistle in Language

The meaning and origin of the term whistleblower is quite easy to grasp. However, the English language contains numerous other expressions involving whistles that might leave you scratching your head. Here are a few of them.

Dog whistle

  • A whistle used to call or direct a dog, especially one sounding at a frequency inaudible to the human ear (ultrasonic). The term dog whistle is a misnomer since ultrasonic whistles can also be heard to a greater or lesser degree by cats, cows, horses, rats, snakes, etc.  The more general term is “silent whistle,” i.e. silent to humans but audible to a number of other species.
  • In politics, an expression or statement that has a secondary meaning intended to stimulate a positive reaction from a specific group of people, e.g.; a dog whistle for evangelicals, a dog whistle to liberals, a dog whistle to conservatives, etc.

Wolf whistle

  • A whistle with a rising and falling pitch to express sexual attraction or admiration, usually done by men towards women, who often perceive it as harassment.
  •  In “Flower Drum Song,” a 1961 musical comedy by Rogers and Hammerstein, an actress sings about how much she enjoys being a girl. One of the lines she sings goes as follows: “When I hear the complimentary (wolf) whistle that greets my bikini by the sea, I turn and I glower and I bristle, but I’m happy to know the whistle is meant for me.”
  • The quintessential wolf whistle is actually portrayed by a wolf in a series of 1940s animated cartoons by Tex Avery. In the classic depiction, Wolfie Wolf is shown sitting at a table in a swanky nightclub. When a pretty young dancer comes on stage, his jaw drops, his tongue spreads on the table, his eyes pop out, and he gives several enthusiastic whistles.

Wet one’s whistle

  • To take a drink (usually alcoholic). For a number of centuries, the whistle has been a jocular name for the mouth or the throat, particularly with regard to singing. The earliest use of the term in writing is attributed to English poet Geoffrey Chaucer in his classic work The Canterbury Tales, published in parts between 1387 and 1400.

Whistle stop

  • A railway station in a town so small and insignificant that passenger trains stop only on signal; otherwise they pass straight through. The town itself is also referred to as a whistle stop.

Whistle-stop campaign; whistle-stop tour

  • In politics, when a politician briefly visits (an hour or two) numerous small towns in succession in order to drum up support for his or her election or re-election. In the same sense, it is when a politician makes such a rapid tour to drum up support or defeat a particular piece of legislation.

Whistle in the dark; whistle past the graveyard; whistle a happy tune

  • These three whistle expressions mean essentially the same thing: To make a show of bravery in face of a scary situation.
  • A melodic expression of this idea occurs in the Rogers and Hammerstein 1951 musical comedy “The King and I.” On arriving from England in (now Sri Lanka), the female protagonist Anna sings:

“Whenever I feel afraid
I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune
So no one will suspect
I’m afraid.

“While shivering in my shoes
I strike a careless pose
And whistle a happy tune
And no one ever knows
I’m afraid.

“The result of this deception
Is very strange to tell
For when I fool the people
I fear I fool myself as well!”


 Bells and whistles

  • This expression has both a positive and negative meaning. In the positive sense, it refers to something that is full and complete, e.g. “This sound system comes with all the bells and whistles.” In the negative sense, it refers to something that is fitted with initially attractive but ultimately unnecessary or useless features, e.g. “This sound system comes with all the bells and whistles.”
  • The origin of the expression is unclear. It possibly originated in the mid or late 19th century, referring to the bells and whistles used on the locomotives of then rapidly expanding and society-altering railroad systems. Another plausible origin is that it originated at the turn of the 20th century, referring to the highly ornate organs used in the rapidly expanding and society-altering silent movie theaters.

Clean as a whistle

  • Impeccably clean. This meaning is probably an extension, not to say a corruption, of the earlier term “clear as a whistle.” referring to the ability of the whistle to be easily heard in a noisy environment such as a large, boisterous crowd.
  • In law enforcement slang, lacking any evidence of wrongdoing. Example: “Sorry boss, we checked the suspect’s alibi and he is as clean as a whistle. It must have been somebody else.

 “Whistle While You Work”

  • This is the title of a song from Walt Disney’s first full-length animated cartoon, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937). While most people probably cannot actually sing the song, or even get past the first line, almost certainly everyone in every generation since the film’s debut knows the song and could whistle its infectious refrain.
  • Somewhat ironically, Snow White whistles only the title phrase, and does so only once.
  • By contrast, another song in the film, “Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho (it’s off to work we go),” has several passages, which find the seven dwarfs happily whistling about the joys of doing a good job. Once again, most people probably couldn’t sing the song, or even get past the first line, but almost certainly they could whistle its infectious refrain.

Whistle Dixie

  • Engage in unrealistic fantasizing; express unjustifiable confidence. Example: “You’re just whistling Dixie if you think your team will beat mine in their next match.”
  • It is often used in the ungrammatical argot expression, “You ain’t just whistling Dixie,” meaning that what you are saying is clearly correct. The expression relates to American Civil War, when the secessionist southern states were collectively known as Dixie. Equally, it relates to the song “Dixie,” which was the secessionist anthem. Still widely sung across the country because of its joyously rousing music, it is also highly controversial because of its secessionist history.

Whistle up something

  • Originally, to summon someone or something by whistling. Today, it broadly means to rapidly get something done. Example: “Give me a moment to whistle up the photos of our vacation in Italy.“

Whistle for something

  • Often used in the phrase “You can just whistle for it.” It means to express a desire for something you are unlikely to ever achieve.

Whistle tip

  • A small metal plate with a central hole that is welded into the inner tip of the exhaust pipe. As exhaust gases are forced through the system under pressure, they pass through the hole, generating a whistlingsound similar to the whistle of a steam locomotive.

Tin whistle

  • A simple, six-holed woodwind musical instrument in the same class as the recorder, the Native American flute, and related instruments. It is also known as a penny whistle, English flageolet, Scottish penny whistle, tin flageolet, Irish whistle, Belfast Hornpipe, and other names. A tin whistle player is called simply a whistler.

Whistle pig

  • An alternative name for the groundhog (woodchuck).
  • The brand name of a range of premium American whiskies.

Whistle and flute

  • Cockney rhyming slang for “suit.”

Whistle code

  • A code for using whistles to send messages loudly or over long distances. Whistle codes were imperative to the efficient and safe running of early railways. Such codes were not standardized, varying from country to country, and even within different parts of larger countries.
  • Emergency whistle codes are used by individuals such as campers, hikers, skiers, spelunkers, etc., who fall into distress. Special survival whistles that produce sounds of at least 100 decibels (capable of being heard 2.3 kilometers/1.4 miles away) are recommended for people who engage in such potentially hazardous activities.

Whistle and Computers

One thing that makes computers—especially small, easily portable ones such as tablets, smartphones, smartwatches, etc.—so attractive is that they allow clustering a number of useful functions that used to be separate, e.g. Address books, notebooks, telephone numbers, calendars, photos, etc., all of which at one time needed to carried around separately. So it shouldn’t be surprising mini portable computers should permit clustering several different types of whistles, which also were once carried as separate pieces of equipment.

For example, Blow My Whistle, a three-whistle app from Microsoft, clusters a dog whistle, an SOS emergency whistle, and a simple noise-making whistle. According to the company of description:

Dog whistle. Permits the choice of sounds in four different frequencies (including ultrasound), so you can call your pet, play with your puppies, or use it for training. Animals can perfectly hear specific frequency sounds emitted by this application (even as they are inaudible to humans).

SOS emergency whistle. With one touch, you can run a cyclical, loud whistle which is very when you need help and have no other way of calling for it. “It can literally save your life during an earthquake, after a tsunami, typhoon, tornado, an emergency or other natural disasters.”

Real whistle. Blow into the microphone as a real whistle to make a loud sound. After five seconds of silence, the noise is automatically disabled. “You can use it in the stadium at a sports event; perfect for sports fans.”

A more exotic alliance of whistles and computers can be found in on-going research on the habits and capabilities of dolphins. Dolphins are well known for their ability and propensity to communicate with one another by whistling. In 2013, for the first time a software program succeeded in translating a dolphin whistle into human speech.

In late August 2013, Dr. Denise Herzing was swimming in the Caribbean with a dolphin pod she had been tracking for the previous 25 years. Dr. Herzing is the founder and research director of the Wild Dolphin Project, a non-profit organization that funds the study of the natural behaviors and communication of Atlantic spotted dolphins in the wild.

The pod of dolphins she was tracking was playing around her boat when suddenly she heard one of them say, “sargassum” (seaweed).

“Wow, we have a match!” she exclaimed.  She had been wearing a prototype dolphin translator called Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT). After many attempts, for the first time the device had just translated a live dolphin whistle in real time. What made the experience even more delicious was that Dr. Herzing heard her own recorded voice saying the word into her earpiece.

This was not a natural dolphin whistle, but rather one of many whistles Dr. Herzing and her team had invented to use when playing with the dolphin pod. They hoped the dolphins would adopt the one of more of their invented whistles, which were easy to distinguish from the animals’ own natural whistle—and they had.

Like many other significant developments in science, this first direct communication with dolphins was not an immediate door opener, but rather a “test of concept.” There were a number of technical problems with this first success that had to be examined and overcome. However, over the past seven years considerable progress has been made, not only in communicating with dolphins but other species as well.