Thursday, 14 May 2009

To Wet (Whet) your Whistle : Origin and Meaning

What does it mean if you wet your whistle?
The most common interpretation is to have something to drink, usually something alcoholic. More polite to say you are off to wet your whistle than to say you are going drinking.
Most references relate to a custom quite a few hundred years ago when drinking mugs had whistles that one would blow to indicate you needed a refill.
Some say the whistle was attached to the handle and became wet after the drink had been poured, hence to wet your whistle.
Other sources say the whistle was part of the mug, built into either the rim or handle. The result in both cases being a wet whistle. I went digging on the web and could find no example of Ye Olde Whistle Mug. Maybe I did not dig deep enough. The only examples I could find were replicas of whistle mugs on offer as curios.

By the way, the whistle part. It would appear in times past ones mouth and or throat were referred to in common talk as your whistle, which makes sense to me. To wet your whistle was to have something to drink. There is documentation that this was in use during the 1300’s. ( Maybe one wet ones whistle before you whistled, hard to whistle with dry lips. Maybe one wet your whistle before talking, something like a glass of water on a speakers table)
So, the way I look at it, is that to have something to drink preceded the whistle on the mug concept. Maybe the one morphed into the other.
You will also find references to “Whet your whistle”. My immediate reaction was that whet morphed into wet over the passage of time. This is not necessarily true.
Whet per definition means either to sharpen something on a grindstone (whetstone) or to excite or stimulate a desire, interest or appetite. Starters at a meal are there to whet your appetite in stimulating the desire to eat more of something else. This is also a saying in its own right, first documentation however quite a few years after the Wet your whistle.
I did a very unsophisticated test on the Internet and Googled “wet your whistle” and had 426,000 hits, the majority directed towards drinking. “Whet your whistle” resulted in 421,000 hits, the majority of the answers related to stimulating further thought or experience processes.
Now you have a good basis to go scratching around for more information and draw your own conclusion.
Image from Wikipedia


Terry said...

When an uncle of mine said "I am going to wet my whistle" he meant he was going for a pee.
An uncircumcised penis bears a resembleence to those old fashioned whistles the police used.

Taylor said...

Here is a link to some "wet your whistle beer mugs." Not original either, but fun.

Andy said...

The thing that the air that you blow into a whistle is directed against to produce the sound (also in steam whistles and recorders, the musical instruments) is called the "fipple". If this is not a finely honed sharp edge, the sound is wheezy instead of clear. So whetting it makes sense to me. In fact, if it's wet from condensation (or spit), it doesn't work very well at all. The Fox 40 whistles have three fipples, which give their characteristic sound. The three are slightly different tones and the interference between them produces the sound our ears interpret as a rolling whistle.
However, a colloquial "wet" to take a drink makes a lot more sense for the common "wet your whistle" phrase.

I lodge in Grub Street said...

I always thought it had something to do with Rhyming Slang, where a whistle is a suit.

Indeed, before you go out you 'press your whistle' (iron your suit) so it made sense to me that a person on a night out is going to wet their whistle - I certainly always do. I think more beer gets spilled down my front then in my mouth.

Froggle said...

My nan who was an EC1 true cockney born in 1914 used to say it when she just needed a little drink and it related to her feeling thirsty.. so it would be drink. Tea or water usually but I can see how it might have been sherry in her younger days lol

Froggle said...

In fact she used to say 'wet me whistle'