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Wet one’s whistle

Q From David Means in Tulsa: I got yet another of those e-mail ‘Fun Facts’ pages forwarded to me with a lot of false etymologies. I was able to find refutations for all but one of these on your site. Can you help prove or disprove this one: ‘Many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used the whistle to get some service. “Wet your whistle” is the phrase inspired by this practice’. I find this explanation too pat and so immediately distrust it. Can you help?

A You’re right to distrust it. These e-mail pieces are fun to read, but they combine a morsel of truth with a large serving of invention. They lie at one extreme of the spectrum of folk or popular etymology, and they’re a very good illustration of the way that mistaken ideas about words and phrases can disseminate.

You can be sure that no pub cup or mug ever had a whistle fitted to it for this purpose. If you wanted another drink, you went up to the bar and asked for it; if the place was posh enough to have table service, you most certainly wouldn’t blow a whistle to get attention! You sometimes see such mugs today, but they’re the pottery equivalent of your e-mail, a joke on a long-established saying.

In the expression, whistle is just a joking reference to one’s mouth or throat and to the fact that one can’t easily whistle when one’s mouth is dry. It’s a very ancient expression: its first recorded appearance is in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at the end of the fourteenth century, and it must surely be even older.

You can sometimes find it as whet one’s whistle, through confusion with whet one’s appetite and similar words in whet, literally meaning to sharpen. It would seem that those who first wrote it that way, more than 300 years ago, were as unsure of the real source of the expression as many of us are today (the first known example is from a book of 1674 by Thomas Flatman with the title Belly God). I shudder to think what the anonymous writer of your e-mail message might make of that version.

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Page created 21 Sep 2002; Last updated 15 Feb 2014