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What Does it Mean to be "as Clean as a Whistle"?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 31 October 2014
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It rarely pays to look a gift idiom in the mouth, but the comparison between cleanliness and a whistle fairly cries out for further examination. Ostensibly, to be as clean as a whistle means to be as smooth and clean as a clear-toned whistle. If too much grime builds up on a train's whistle, for example, its tone and clarity will be seriously affected. A homemade wooden whistle must also be shaved smooth before it can produce a clear tone.

The difficulty with this explanation lies in the connection between "clean" and "whistle." There are some word origin experts who suggest the original saying is "as clear as a whistle instead. This would imply that the object in question is unambiguous and clearly defined, much like the sound of a whistle or a bell. Well-written instructions left behind by a supervisor might be said to be clear as a bell.

There is also the dual meanings of the word clean. A well-used whistle is not exactly the first thing one might associate with hygiene. An older meaning of "clean" implies a level of smoothness, as in a clean-shaven face. A rough surface would produce too much air resistance for a pure tone, so the whistle's maker must strive for a near-perfect smoothness around the mouthpiece and air hole.

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To further complicate matters, there is also a variant on the phrase that makes about as much sense and is possibly closer to the mark. Some people say an exceptionally clean or smooth surface is as slick as a whistle, covering much of the same territory as the original as clean as a whistle simile. A bald man's scalp could be described as slick as a whistle, for example.

There is surprisingly little agreement among word origin experts concerning the first incidence of the simile "as clean as a whistle". It is possible that a number of earlier idioms became corrupted over time and "clear as a whistle" became "clean" throughout a perpetuated misunderstanding. Sometimes when a corrupted or mistranslated idiom makes as much sense as the original, it becomes the more accepted version over time.

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lovealot
Post 3

The meaning of this idiom is confusing, to say the least. In a book of idioms, I found another explanation.

It means something that is completely free of dust or dirt.

Here is one explanation that tells about a possible origin of the saying. In the 1700s, a Scottish poet used a similar phrase, "as toom's a whissle." In those days toom meant empty. The idea is you can get the cleanest, purist sound from a whistle or any wind instrument if you keep the reed clean. The reed is the part that makes the sound whenever you blow into it. The reed has to be free of dust or dirt. Here are some examples - The inside of the car is as clean as a whistle. The janitor worked hard and by 4:00, the classroom was as clean as a whistle.

GreenWeaver
Post 2

@Anon143788 - I don’t know either, but I have to say that I always thought that it referred to someone that was not corrupt or did not have a criminal history. I don’t know maybe I have been watching too many mob films, but that was my first reaction to this idiom.

I also hear this phrase used when referring to politicians because they are notorious for having skeletons in their closet. I think that if a politician is, “Clean as a whistle” it really means that they have no scandals in their past that could get in their way of their campaign.

anon143788
Post 1

Where I'm from if someone mentions a whistle they're usually referring to a suit, from the rhyming slang "whistle and flute". As people tend to keep their suits cleaner than their other garments, I've wondered if that was behind the meaning. But maybe not. --Bazz

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