Childish treble, pipes and whistles in sound

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THE tune that the central banker is currently humming is whistle blowing. And, the now-playing lyric is called `Proposed Protected Disclosures Scheme for Private Sector and Foreign Banks', a five-page document on

, the site of the Reserve Bank of India. Before you tap your foot or beat the drum, pluck the strings or play the flute, to celebrate the new channel of communication, which the private banks may find tough to come to terms with, let's take a closer look at the whistle.


Concise Oxford English Dictionary

, the word occurs after whispering gallery and whist. "A clear, high-pitched sound made by forcing breath through a small hole between partly closed lips, or between one's teeth," runs the definition. "A small wind instrument in which sound is produced by the forcible passage of breath through a slit in a short tube," says

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

, giving as example `police whistle'. You may wince, reading a quote of Moon Unit Zappa: "I remember one guy who drilled a hole in his nose so he could whistle out of it."

A factory whistle can be different; it is "a device through which air or steam is forced into a cavity or against a thin edge to produce a loud sound," as

explains. Do you know that `wolf whistle' is `a distinctive whistle sounded by a boy or man to express sexual admiration for a girl or woman in his vicinity'? In

King Henry IV

, Falstaff talks of singing `those tunes to the overscutched huswives that he heard the carmen whistle'.


Nautical Dictionary

, on

, whistle is "a sound buoy aid to navigation, having a bellows that forces air through a tuned pipe to produce a distinctive sound." It can mean "the sound signal of a ship, used in fog or to indicate intentions when manoeuvring near other ships." Four hoarse blasts of a ship's whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping, says John Steinbeck. But whistle may not yield desirable results, as Marina would highlight in

Pericles, Prince of Tyre

: "The boatswain whistles, and the master calls, and trebles their confusion."

Etymology is from "Middle English, from Old English


; akin to Old Norse


to whisper." The word used to refer to the hissing of serpents, suggests

Online Etymology Dictionary

. "Railroad whistle stop (at which trains stop only if the engineer hears a signal from the station) is recorded from 1934." Whistle stop also means "a brief stop by a political candidate in a small town during an election campaign," as


defines. The word whistle-blower, meaning someone who exposes wrongdoing, is only about three decades old. `Blow the whistle on somebody or something' is the usage that

suggests. For example, "The kids are encouraged to blow the whistle on any of their friends who are using drugs."

To whistle means making a shrill call or cry, as birds or animals do. `Traffic whistling by,' is an example that


provides to define whistle as moving at great speed through the air, making a shrill sound. `Wind whistling through the rafters,' needn't be at great speed, though.

`Whistling a tune' refers to producing music, usually when happy. "When the whistle blew and the call stretched thin across the night, one had to believe that any journey could be sweet to the soul," romanticises Charles Turner.

Whistle can be used to issue a call and summon a person or animal, such as your pet dog. "Hear the shrill whistle which doth order give to sounds confused," writes Shakespeare in

King Henry V


`How does a dog whistle work?' reads a question on

. Since dogs can hear sounds of higher pitch than people can, dog whistles have a very high pitch. "A long tube will ring at a low pitch, a short tube at a high pitch. So a dog-whistle has a very short little tube, only 1 inch long or shorter." We don't always agree on stuff, but when it's time to blow the whistle and start the game, we're not still debating, says Rick Wagoner. Whistle pig is the `same as woodchuck', which is "a heavy-set short-legged marmot with brownish fur streaked with grey," informs

. Whistling duck is "a long-legged duck with an upright stance and often a whistling call". And a whistler is not only something or somebody that whistles. As a radio term, whistler is "an interference signal in a radio receiver, resembling a whistling sound of decreasing pitch and caused by lightning or other electromagnetic disturbance."

Whistler is "an often brightly coloured songbird with a particularly melodious whistling call," belonging to Pachycephalidae family. And, to a vet, whistler is "a horse with a respiratory condition that causes it to make a whistling noise when it breathes in." According to Drayton (cited in

) the blackbird, is the only bird that whistles; "Upon his dulcet pipe the merle doth only play (Drayton:


), xiii. (1613)." The site also has an entry titled `Whistle to White Lady'. The story is that in the train of Anne of Denmark, when she went to Scotland with James VI, there was a gigantic Dane of matchless drinking capacity. "He had an ebony whistle which, at the beginning of a drinking bout, he would lay on the table, and whoever was last able to blow it, was to be considered the `Champion of the Whistle.'" One learns that Burns has a ballad on the subject, called

The Whistle



has a whole page on whistle. "A whistle is a one-note woodwind instrument which produces sound from a stream of forced air," it begins. "Although whistles have a musical characteristic (for example, train whistles sound a minor-seventh musical chord), whistles are not usually considered `musical' in the sense of being able to play a chosen melody."

The musically-inclined needn't fret because `musical whistles exist'. Such as, "2-octave musical instruments known as tin whistles (sometimes known as pennywhistles or low whistles), the calliope (an array of separately actuable steam whistles), organ pipes and the recorder."

Composers should write tunes that chauffeurs and errand boys can whistle, insists Thomas Beecham. "He seems determined to make a trumpet sound like a tin whistle," is a quote of Aneurin Bevan. "I like to hear melodies that go from one extreme to the next saxophone to a bell to a whistle, for instance," says Roscoe Mitchell. Know that pea whistles are used in jazz and Latin music as a percussion instrument. The pea is a small light ball, to rattle around inside, `creating a chaotic vibrato effect that intensifies the sound'. There are Japanese bird whistles that use several small balls and are half-filled with water, "to reproduce the sound of a bird song".

To be as clean as a whistle is said of someone not involved in anything illegal. And that's the same as being `as clean as a new pin,' when meaning `very clean', as in `The café's as clean as a whistle, and the food's excellent,' an example that

Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms

provides. An old-fashioned usage is `wet your whistle' to mean `to have a drink, especially an alcoholic drink'. To whistle in the dark is to attempt to keep one's courage up.

Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

explains that if you paid too dearly for your whistle, it means you paid dearly for something you fancied, but found that it did not answer your expectation. "The allusion is to a story told by Dr Franklin of his nephew, who set his mind on a common whistle, which he bought of a boy for four times its value. Franklin says the ambitious who dance attendance on court, the miser who gives this world and the next for gold, the libertine who ruins his health for pleasure, the girl who marries a brute for money, all pay `too much for their whistle'," elaborates


As a corollary, `worth the whistle' means worth inviting, or worth notice. "I have been worth the whistle," is a line from

King Lear

. `You may whistle for that,' means `you must not expect it,' and the reference is to sailors whistling for the wind, explains


. "Only a little hour ago I was whistling to St. Antonio for a capful of wind to fill our sail, and instead of a breeze he has sent a gale," is a pick from Longfellow's

Golden Legend


A Mother Goose rhyme talks of `Simple Simon' who went to look if plums grew on a thistle. "He pricked his fingers very much, which made poor Simon whistle." Kent says in

King Lear

, "I have watched and travell'd hard; some time I shall sleep out, the rest I'll whistle." And James Grahame writes: "How still the morning of the hallow'd day! Mute is the voice of rural labour, hush'd the ploughboy's whistle, and the milkmaid's song."

Let me wrap with a line from Jaques in

As You Like It

, in the dialogue that begins with the famous `All the world's a stage', and concludes with `last scene of all' about `second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything'. Thus, in `the sixth age' is where man shifts "into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon, with spectacles on nose and pouch on side, his youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide for his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice, turning again toward childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound."

Can that be the lifecycle of whistleblowers too?

D. Murali

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 27, 2006)
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