Monday, March 19, 2012

Clean as a whistle

This term generally means that something is clean or spotless. We use this phrase to refer to things that are exceptionally clean. The origin of this phrase has a number of possibilities; I will look at three possible origins.

One possible origin comes from the whistle sound of a sword as it swishes through the air when decapitating someone. The thought is that the expression would be uttered if the decapitation was a clean cut. Although, I don’t really associate the word clean with a decapitation.

A second possible origin comes from a whistle made from a reed or a piece of wood. Small debris or moisture can adversely affect a whistle if it is not properly cleaned. In order for a whistle, or a similar instrument, to make proper sounds or tones it must be kept clean.  

Another possible origin comes from trains. Trains have, or had, brass whistles for signalling and warning people. These whistles were always kept clean and shiny, hence the phrase clean as a whistle.

This phrase has a number of different possible origins but just be thankful that we don’t use it for decapitations anymore.

I thank Danielle for suggesting this phrase.


  1. Yeah, I definitely like the train origin the best...seems to make the most sense. The decapitation one is quite funny though. Thanks Justin.

    1. Funny in a disturbing kinda way.

    2. Hey! You have a blog! (Just kidding)

      Speaking of train-related turns of phrases, my grandfather used to always says "black as an engineer's glove." Ever heard that one before?

      Keep up the wonderful etymological archeology!

  2. This is very interesting Justin. It's funny how sometimes we use words or phrases without thinking about where they come from or what they really mean. Thanks for enlightening me on what "clean as a whistle" means.

  3. Wow super interesting Justin. I must say I enjoy reading your blog posts, and learning about all these phrases I honestly had no clue of the 'true' meaning. I am very thankful the meaning of clean as a whistle is no longer referred to for decapitation!

  4. This phrase just came up in a family conversation and as I went to Google for the meaning I found your blog. Thanks for the varied explainations. I wasn't impressed with the decapitation idea I found as the only one in several areas. Think I'll go with the train whistle, lol.