If there is any word that we need to take a look at this week, it’s whistleblower, for what I think would be obvious reasons. Normally, if the term whistleblower is in the news, it’s soon overshadowed by the conspiracy or misconduct they sought to illuminate.
But this whistleblower — someone who worked in the White House and formally notified the Intelligence Community Inspector General (ICIG) of the president’s attempt to persuade Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate the Biden family — is still on many people’s lips as the US House begins impeachment proceedings this week.
The term whistleblower as we understand it today, referring to someone trying to expose to the public of some larger wrongdoing, is a good ol’ American English word that was coined by journalists in 1963, though some claim that it was Ralph Nader, the famous consumer protection advocate and the reason why we all have to wear seatbelts, who adapted the term.
For the 100 years leading up to Nader’s co-opting of the term for outing all the cover-ups by the car industry, the term whistleblower had a fairly negative connotation, meaning something more like snitch. That’s because, at the time, only two groups of people carried around whistles: police officers and sports referees. And their blowing of a whistle usually meant you, and not a large corporation or the US executive branch, did something wrong,
Both the verb and noun forms of whistle developed at about the same time in the English language. The Old English verb hwistlian, and its noun hwistle, are rooted in the Proto-Germanic hwis, which was probably imitative of a hissing sound. The root hwis is also seen in our word hiss (like in the Dutch hvisle) and whisper (like in the Norse hvisla). In fact, even up to the 17th century, whistle could also mean whisper.
For centuries in England, whistling was very closely related to hissing, so that’s why, even today, whistling is often seen as derisive in public across the pond; whereas in the states, we use whistles to support our sports teams or cheer a great performance.
Calling back to Ukraine, Ukrainians consider it bad luck to whistle indoors (as my Ukrainian foreign exchange student warned me years ago); just as it’s superstitious to whistle during a storm when sailing. When the sea is calm, it’s good to whistle, as sailors hope for wind; but who wants more wind in a storm?
The idea of whistling being a sound, usually musical in nature, formed by the lips and breath, dates to the mid-15th century. This comes from the Old English term hwistle referring to a small, tube-like musical instrument. Indeed, the phrase “to wet one’s whistle” pre-dates the meaning of whistle as being a tune from the lips. So, then, to wet one’s whistle actually refers to a dry throat as a sort of pipe that needs lubrication. The whistle was the throat, not the lips, as we may understand it in that phrase today.
Blow is also an Old English word, from the verb blawan, meaning to make a current of air or sound. It comes from the Proto-Germanic blae-anan, from the PIE root bhle, which could also mean to swell. Bhel is at the root of many words along those lines: bladder, blast, blaze, and even flatulent, flavor, and soufflé.
Since the 1500s, the word blow has seen many colloquial adaptations: to blow your nose dates to the 1530s, to blow off steam from 1837, to blow your money from 1874, and to leave suddenly (as in “Let’s blow this joint”) from 1902. Popeye’s famous imprecation, “Well, blow me down,” is seen as early as 1781.
The noun blow, as in a hard hit, comes much later, in the mid-15th century, but has no direct etymological relationship with the verb form. Originally spelled blaw, the word comes from the Middle Dutch blouwen, meaning to beat. Speakers of Old English would typically use slean, to strike, from which we get the word slay. But this blow, in the sense of coming to blows (from the 1650s) or listening to a blow-by-blow account of a boxing match (from 1921), is unrelated to the Old English verb form, though its spelling probably influenced how the noun blow changed.
Now that House Democrats are getting serious about impeachment proceedings, it looks like the White House whistleblower has certainly helped deal quite a blow to this administration. For now, at least. Until the whole thing blows over.