Whistle(blow) While You Work

By Rob Kyff

October 30, 2019 3 min read

Pity the poor word "whistleblower." Like the intrepid human it denotes, this term has endured a long, difficult struggle toward legitimacy and respectability.

Its parents, "blow" and "whistle," have been sounding the alarm since Shakespeare's time. Lady Macbeth fretted that the "sightless couriers of the air shall blow the horrid deed in every eye," while the clown in "The Winter's Tale" faulted indiscreet maids for choosing to "whistle off these secrets ... tittle-tattling before all our guests."

"Whistle" and "blower" have been used as a phrase for centuries, of course. The earliest citation I could find of the pairing came in Wisconsin's Janesville Gazette, which, in 1883, praised a policeman named McGinley for blowing his whistle to disperse a riot: "Ere the town clock had struck the midnight hour, all had returned to their homes. But the crowd of people were all willing to bet that McGinley was the champion whistle blower in America."

In subsequent decades, the term was applied regularly to the law enforcement officers and sports referees who alerted people to felonies and fouls. Perpetrators and players, of course, didn't always appreciate these shrill alarmists — "Damn whistle blowers!" — so the phrase inevitably acquired a negative connotation.

"Whistle blower" spiked in both popularity and reputation during the late 1960s and early 1970s when journalists started using it figuratively to describe brave souls who came forward to expose governmental and corporate malfeasance. Think Daniel Ellsberg, Deep Throat, Ralph Nader and Erin Brockovich; though, as far as we know, none of them actually blew whistles.

By the late 1960s, the two-word phrase was common enough to be joined with a hyphen. In 1969, for instance, The Lawton Constitution of Oklahoma wrote of the GI who exposed the My Lai massacre, "This whistle-blower has turned out to be a clever member of the anti-war faction." And in 1970, The New York Times described "how well the majority leader handled a whistle-blower."

The term had become so popular by the late 1970s that publications and dictionaries began dropping the hyphen and rendering the term as one word. Since then, "whistleblower" has been used to describe anyone who alerts the public or those in authority to wrongdoing.

Whether you love whistleblowers or hate 'em, you're probably asking the same question I am: Is McGinley still the whistleblowing champion?

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: KeithJJ at Pixabay

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