Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/June 1883/Whistling



IN whatever way regarded, either as a graceful accomplishment or as the spontaneous expression of light-heartedness, whistling has in our own and foreign countries generally attracted considerable attention. Why it should have been invested with so much superstitious awe it is difficult to say, but it is a curious fact that the same antipathy which it arouses among certain classes of our own countrymen is found existing in the most distant parts of the earth, where, as yet, civilization has made little or imperceptible progress. Thus Captain Burton[1] tells us how the Arabs dislike to hear a person whistle, called by them el sifr. Some maintain that the whistler's mouth is not to be purified for forty days; while, according to the explanation of others, Satan touching a man's body causes him to produce, what they consider, an offensive sound.[2] The natives of the Tonga Islands, Polynesia, hold it to be wrong to whistle, as this act is thought to be disrespectful to God.[3] In Iceland, the villagers have the same objection to whistling, and so far do they carry their superstitious dread of it that "if one swings about him a stick, whip, wand, or aught that makes a whistling sound, he scares from him the Holy Ghost"; while other Icelanders, who consider themselves free from superstitions, cautiously give the advice: "Do it not; for who knoweth what is in the air?" However eccentric these phases of superstitious belief may appear to us, yet it must not be forgotten that very similar notions prevail at the present day, in this country. A correspondent of "Notes and Queries" (1879, fifth series, xii, 92), for instance, relates how one day, after attempting in vain to get his dog to obey orders to come into the bouse, his wife tried to coax it by whistling, when she was suddenly interrupted by a servant, a Roman Catholic, who exclaimed in the most piteous accents, "If you please, ma'am, don't whistle—every time a woman whistles, the heart of the blessed Virgin bleeds!" In some districts of North Germany the villagers say that if one whistles in the evening it makes the angels weep. Speaking, however, of ladies in connection with whistling, it is a widespread superstition that it is at all times unlucky for them to whistle, which, according to one legend, originated in the circumstance that, while the nails for our Lord's cross were being forged, a woman stood by and whistled. Curiously enough, however, one very seldom hears any of the fair sex indulging in this recreation, although there is no reason, as it has been often pointed out, why they should not whistle with as much facility as the opposite sex. One cause, perhaps, of the absence of this custom among women may be, in a measure, due to the distortion of the features which it occasions. Thus we know how Minerva cast away, with an imprecation, the pipe, which afterward proved so fatal to Marsyas, when she beheld in the water the disfigurement of her face caused by her musical performance. There are numerous instances on record, nevertheless, of ladies whistling at public entertainments, and charming their audiences with the graceful ease with which they performed such airs as "The Blue Bells of Scotland" or "The Mocking-Bird." Indeed, not many years ago, at a grand provincial concert, two sisters excited much admiration by the clever and artistic way in which they whistled a duet.

Referring to whistling performances, Addison, in one of the earlier numbers of the "Spectator," gives an amusing account of a contest, where a prize of a guinea was to be conferred on the successful competitor who could not only whistle the best, but go through his tune without laughing, and that in spite of the ludicrous antics of a certain merry-andrew, whose special duty it was to try as far as possible to discompose each of the competitors by making grimaces. On the occasion in question, the competitors were an under-citizen, remarkable for his wisdom—a plowman endued "with a very promising aspect of inflexible stupidity"—and a footman, who, having captivated his audience by whistling "a Scotch tune and an Italian sonata," carried off the prize. Strutt, in his "Sports and Pastimes," relates the remarkable performance of a whistler, who, assuming the name of Rossignol, exhibited at the end of the last century his talent on the stage of Covent Garden Theatre, and attracted for some time considerable notice.[4]

Anyhow, the universality of the prejudice against women whistling is an acknowledged fact, and there are few localities where one may not hear the familiar rhyme:

"A whistling wife and a crowing hen
"Will call the old gentleman out of his den."

Of course there are various versions, as, for instance, in Northamptonshire, where the peasantry say:

"A whistling woman and a crowing hen
Are neither fit for God nor men."

The Cornish saying is to the same effect: "A whistling woman and a crowing hen are the two unluckiest things under the sun." Similar also is the French proverb, "Une poule qui chante le coq et une fille qui siffle portent malheur dans la maison." The same superstition prevails among the seafaring community; and Mr. Henderson[5] relates how, a few years ago, when a party of friends were about to go on board a vessel at Scarborough, the captain caused no small astonishment by declining in the most emphatic way to allow one of them to enter it: "Not that young lady," he cried out; "she whistles." By a curious coincidence, the vessel was lost on her next voyage; so, had the young lady formed one of the party, the misfortune would certainly have been attributed to her. After all, it seems hard that, if the mere act of whistling can help to cheer a man, such a soothing influence should be denied to a woman. "If whistling," says a writer in the "Phrenological Journal," "will drive away the blues and be company for a lonesome person, surely women have much more need of its services than their brothers, for to them come many more such occasions than to men. There is a physical advantage in whistling which should excuse it against all the canons of propriety or 'good form.' It is often remarked that the average girl is so narrow-chested, and in that respect compares so unfavorably with her brother, which may be due in some measure to the habit of whistling which every boy acquires." An eminent medical authority says: "All the men whose business it is to try the wind-instruments made at the various factories before sending them off for sale are, without exception, free from pulmonary affections. I have known many who, when entering upon this calling, were very delicate, and who, nevertheless, though their duty obliged them to blow for hours together, enjoyed perfect health after a certain time." As the action of blowing wind-instruments is the same as that of whistling, the effects should be the same. Whistling has been popularly styled the "devil's music," the reason, in all probability, being that, when persons are up to anything wrong and likely to be caught, they assume an air of indifference by whistling. As the daily music of boys, however, it may be attributed to want of thought; and so Cowper, in his description of the "Postman" ("Task," book iv), says:

"He whistles as he goes, light-hearted wretch,
Cold and yet cheerful; messenger of grief
Perhaps to thousands, and of joy to some,
To him indifferent whether grief or joy."

In Shield's opera of "The Farmer," the singer—"now a saucy footman" thus reverts to his boyhood:

"A flaxen-headed cowboy, I whistled o'er the lea,
And then a little plowboy, as happy as could be."

Dryden, too, says in his "Cymon and Iphygenia":

"He whistled as he went, for want of thought."

And the same idea was perhaps in Milton's mind

"While the plowman near at hand,
Whistles o'er the furrowed land."

Gay, also, wrote in the same strain:

"The plowman leaves the task of day.
And trudging homeward, whistles on the way."

The act of "whistling in one's fist," which is much in use among the lower orders, especially when they are desirous of sending the sound some distance, consists in bringing the thumbs of both hands together, leaving the hands and closed fingers to form a hollow space; then, by blowing through the narrow aperture left between the thumbs, a very loud and shrill whistle is produced. In Lincolnshire, in my school-days, says a correspondent of "Notes and Queries" (fourth series, ii, 213), this form of whistling used to be called the "thieves' whistle"—a name, by-the-by, which is still employed in London. Indeed, few subjects have given rise to a greater variety of popular every-day sayings than whistling. Thus the expression, to "pay for one's whistle"—a favorite phrase with George Eliot—means to gratify one's fancy. Again, a thing worthy of notice is said in common parlance to be "worth the whistle"; the reference obviously being to the ordinary way of calling up a dog. Heywood, for instance, in one of is proverbs, says, "It is a poor dog that is not worth the whistling." Shakespeare, too, makes Goneril say to Albany, in "King Lear" (Act iv, scene 2):

"I have been worth the whistle."

Then there is the phrase, "To pay too dearly for one's whistle," implying that, after a person has paid dearly for something he fancied, he finds it does not answer his expectations. The allusion, says Dr. Brewer, in his "Dictionary of Phrase and Fable," 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 attendant 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 in the long run pay too much for their whistle." Once more, the old hackneyed proverbs "To wet one's whistle" and "To whistle for more" allude to the whistle drinking-cups of days gone by. It appears that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, silversmiths devoted a large amount of invention to the production of drinking-tankards, which took the form of men, animals, birds, etc., of most grotesque design.[6] According to one popular device, the cup had to be held in the hand to be filled, and retained there till it was emptied, as then only it could be set on the table. The drinker having swallowed the contents, blew up the pipe at the side, which gave a shrill whistle, and announced to the drawer that more liquor was required. Hence, too, no doubt, originated the phrase "whistle-drunk." Fielding relates how Squire Western, when supping one night at a friend's house, "was indeed whistle drunk," for before he had swallowed the third bottle he became so entirely overpowered that, though he was not carried off to bed till long after, the parson considered him as absent.

The idea of ghosts whistling is still far from extinct in England, and enters largely into the folk-lore of our peasantry; a superstition which has been associated with the "Seven Whistlers," supposed by some to be phantom-birds. Thus, among the colliers of Leicestershire, we are told how, when trade is brisk and money plentiful, disposing them for a drinking-frolic, they are said to hear the warning voice of the "Seven Whistlers"—birds sent purposely, as they affirm, by Providence to warn them of an impending danger, and on hearing the signal not a man will descend into the pit until the following day.[7] Wordsworth, it may be remembered, in one of his sonnets, couples the "Seven Whistlers" with the "Gabriel hounds," those weird, mysterious specter-dogs which with such fiendish yellings haunt the midnight air:

"The poor old man is greater than he seems:
He the seven birds hath seen that never part,
Seen the seven whistlers in their nightly rounds,
And counted them; and oftentimes will start,
For overhead are sweeping Gabriel's hounds."

The superstitious fear attaching to these whistlers is noticed by Spenser in his "Faerie Queen" (book ii, canto xii, stanza 36), where, "among the nation of unfortunate and fatal birds" that flocked about Sir Guyon and the Palmer, it is thus alluded to:

"The whistler shrill, that whoso hears doth die."

It has been suggested that the whistler is the green plover to which Sir Walter Scott refers in "The Lady of the Lake," where he relates how—

"In the plover's shrilly strains
The signal whistle's heard again"—

its ominous shrill whistle which startles, with dreadful awe, the midnight traveler as he journeys along some lonely road, sounding far more like a human note than that of a bird. In illustration of this view we may quote the following anecdote related by a correspondent of "Notes and Queries" (fourth series, viii, 268), which, however, supports the popular theory of the birds in question being supernatural beings: "One evening a few years ago, when crossing one of our Lancashire moors in company with an intelligent old man, he was suddenly startled by the whistling overhead of a covey of plovers. My companion remarked that when a boy the old people considered such a circumstance a bad omen, 'as a person who heard the wandering Jews,' as he called the plovers, 'was sure to be overtaken by some ill-luck.' On questioning my friend about the name given to the birds, he said, 'There is a tradition that they contain the souls of those Jews who assisted at the crucifixion, and in consequence were doomed to float in the air forever.' When he arrived at the foot of the moor, a coach by which I had hoped to reach my destination had already started, thereby causing me to continue my journey on foot. The old man reminded me of the omen." To quote a further anecdote recorded by another correspondent of the same journal, we are told how during a thunder-storm which passed over the neighborhood of Kettering on the evening of September 6, 1871—on which occasion the lightning was very vivid—an unusual spectacle was witnessed: immense flocks of birds were flying about, uttering doleful, affrighted cries as they passed over the locality, and for hours they kept up a continual whistling like that made by sea-birds. "The following day," adds the writer, "as my servant was driving me to a neighboring village, this phenomenon of the flight of birds became the subject of conversation, and, on asking him what birds he thought they were, he told me they were what were called the 'Seven Whistlers,' and that whenever they were heard it was considered a sign of some great calamity, and that the last time he heard them was before the great Hartley Colliery explosion; he had also been told by soldiers that if they heard them they always expected a great slaughter would take place soon. Curiously enough, on taking up the newspaper on the following morning, I saw headed in large letters, 'Terrible Colliery Explosion at Wigan,' etc. This, I thought, would confirm my man's belief in the "Seven Whistlers." Among the pieces of folk-lore connected with whistling may be mentioned that of sailors whistling for a wind on a calm day; an expedient which they believe seldom fails. Thus Longfellow, in his "Golden Legend," speaks of this notion:

"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."

Sir Walter Scott, too ("Rokeby," ii, 11), says:

"What gales are sold on Lapland's shore!
How whistle rash bids tempests roar!"

Among the numerous anecdotes connected with whistling, it may be remembered that in the train of Anne of Denmark, when she went to Scotland with James VI, was a gigantic Dane of matchless drinking capacity. He possessed 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 by general consent considered to be the "champion of the whistle." It happened, however, that during his stay in Scotland the Dane was defeated by Sir Robert Laurie, of Maxwelton, who, after three days and three nights of hard drinking, left the Dane under the table, and "blew on the whistle his requiem shrill." The whistle remained in the family seven years, when it was won by Sir Walter Laurie, son of Sir Robert. The last person who carried it off was Alexander Ferguson, of Craig-darroch, son of "Annie Laurie," so well known. Burns has immortalized the subject in a poem entitled "The Whistle," from which we quote the following stanzas:

"I sing of a whistle, a whistle of a worth,
I sing of a whistle, the pride of the North,
Was brought to the court of our good Scottish king,
And long with this whistle all Scotland shall ring.
Old Loda, still rueing the arm of Fingal,
The god of the bottle sends down from his hall;
'This whistle's your challenge—to Scotland get o'er,
And drink them to hell, sir, or ne'er see me more!'" etc.

The Russians in the Ukraine tell a queer story about a whistling robber of olden times, who evidently was a person of gigantic proportions, for he was in the habit of sitting on nine oak-trees at once. One of the nicknames given to him was "Nightingale," on account of his extraordinary whistling powers. Should an unwary traveler come across his path, he would whistle so melodiously that his victim would quickly faint away, whereupon he stepped forward and killed him outright. At last, however, a well-known hero, by name Ilja Marometz, determined to subdue the robber, and, having shot him with an arrow, took him prisoner, carrying him off to the court of the Grand Prince Vladimir. Even there he proved dangerous, for when the grand prince, merely from curiosity, commanded him to whistle, the grand princess and all the royal children being present, the man commenced whistling in such an overpowering manner that soon Vladimir with his whole family would inevitably have been dead had not one of his brave courtiers, perceiving the danger, got up and shut the whistlers mouth.[8]

We must not omit to mention the celebrated "Whistling Caster," which about forty years ago created such a sensation at the small oyster and refreshment rooms situated in Vinegar Yard, near Catherine Street, Strand. "It appears," says a writer in the "Daily Telegraph," "that about the year 1840, the proprietor of the house in question, which had then, as it has now, a great name for the superior excellence of its delicate little 'natives,' heard a strange and unusual sound proceeding from one of the tubs in which the shell-fish lay, piled in layers one over the other, placidly fattening upon oatmeal, and awaiting the inevitable advent of the remorseless knife. Mr. Pearkes, the landlord, listened, hardly at first believing his ears. There was, however, no doubt about the matter. One of the oysters was distinctly whistling, or, at any rate, producing a sort of 'sifflement' with its shell. It was not difficult to detect this phenomenal bivalve, and in a very few minutes he was triumphantly picked out from among his fellows, and put by himself in a spacious tub with a bountiful supply of brine and meal. The news spread throughout the town, and for some days the fortunate Mr. Pearkes found his house besieged by curious crowds. That this Arion of oysters did really whistle is beyond all question. How he managed to do so is not upon record." As may be imagined, the jokes to which this fresh wonder of creation gave rise were unlimited; and Thackeray was in the habit of relating an amusing story of his own experience in connection with it. It appears that he was one day in the shop when an American came in to see this startling freak of nature; after hearing the talented niollusk go through its usual performance, he walked contemptuously out, remarking at the same time that "it was nothing to an oyster he knew of in Massachusetts, which whistled 'Yankee Doodle' right through, and followed its master about the house like a dog." Douglas Jerrold surmised that the oyster had undoubtedly "been crossed in love, and now whistled to keep up appearances, with an idea of showing that it didn't care." The subsequent fate of this interesting creature, says Mr. Walford,[9] "is a mystery—whether he was eaten alive, or ignominously scalloped, or still more ignominiously handed over to the tender mercies of a cook in the neighborhood, to be served up in a bowl of oyster-sauce as a relish to a hot beefsteak. In fact, like the 'Lucy' of Wordsworth—

'. . . none can tell
When the oyster ceased to he.'

But it is somewhat singular that so eccentric a creature should have existed in the middle of London, and in the middle of the nineteenth century, and that no history of his career should be on record." Lastly, although whistling would seem to be as natural an act as that of laughing, yet we are told by Mr. Shortland that it was formerly unknown among the New-Zealanders.[10] When, too, on one occasion a native of Burmah observed an American missionary whistling, he exclaimed in astonishment, "Why! he makes music with his mouth!" a remark which the missionary noted down in his journal with this note: "It is remarkable that the Burmese are entirely ignorant of whistling."[11]Gentleman's Magazine.

  1. "First Footsteps in East Africa," 1856, p. 142.
  2. Carl Engel, "Musical Myths and Facts," 1876, i, 91.
  3. "Mariner and Martin: An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands," 1818, ii, 131.
  4. See an article entitled "Mouth Music" in "Book of Days," i, 751.
  5. "Folk-lore of the Northern Counties," 1879, p. 43.
  6. Chambers's "Book of Days," ii, 455.
  7. "Nature," June 22, 1871, 140; "Notes and Queries," fourth series, viii, 68.
  8. Carl Engel, "Musical Myths and Facts," i, 92, 93.
  9. "Old and New London," iii, 281.
  10. "Traditions of the New-Zealanders," p. 134.
  11. Howard Malcolm, "Travels in Southeastern Asia," 1839, i, 205.