Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Whistling Dixie

A few months back I walked though The Lexiteria to my office whistling and my office manager shortly thereafter stuck her head in the door and said, “I’ve never heard you whistle before.”

Whistling Dixie in harmonyWell, it had been a long time since I had whistled and I wondered why. Now I’ve had time to observe and I’ve come to the conclusion that no one in the US whistles any longer; we are no longer a whistling nation. When I was growing up, people whistled popular tunes all the time. It was a sign that we were happy, in a good mood, at peace with the world. We don’t do that any more.

Since whistling is another type of oral communication, it strikes me as fair game for this blog. I think it is time we began asking ourselves why whistling has died out and I offer this blog as (so far as I know) a first attempt at blind speculation on the subject.

The world has become much more complex over the past half century, of course. Probably fewer of us are at peace with the world and more of us busy trying to keep up with it. I don’t think any fewer of us are never happy, so the question is why don’t we whistle to express our happiness?

The loss of whistling puts a long list of idioms at risk: “just whistling Dixie”, “whistling in the wind”, “whistlestop”, “blow the whistle”, “whistle in the dark”. How many of these do you know? I fear they are slipping away.

One reason that jumps out is that we no longer have composers writing whistlable songs. Rappers and hip-hoppers chant mean-spirited jargon that is foisted on us by recording companies. Have you heard a recent rap that made you want to whistle it?

In the 40s and 50s we had tunes by Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Warren, Julie Styne and the 60s brought us a slough of whistlable songs by John Lennon and others.

My tentative conclusion is that whistling has been disassociated with happiness by a shift in music from the beautiful ballads of yesteryear to angry, unmemorable chants pandered by the music industry today. But, as I mentioned before, this is just a preliminary blind speculation. More advanced analysis awaits further investigation.

31 Responses to “Whistling Dixie”

  1. Dan Says:

    More speculation: as a member of Generation Y, I know a lot of people who think that whistling is downright rude. There’s a bit of a stigma against doing it.

    p.s. Any discussion of whistlable songs is incomplete without a mention of the Nurse’s Whistle from Kill Bill, which started a brief whistling resurgance a few years back…

  2. rbeard Says:

    Rudeness needs to be examined as a contributing cause. When did whistling become rude and why? My impression is that whistling went out in the 60s when rudeness was not high on the list of objectionable behaviors.

  3. rbeard Says:

    Paul Ogden wrote:

    “I read your blog entry on whistling with interest. So much interest that I went looking . . .

    What Paul found was a website devoted to whistling languages– yes, languages that can be whistled back and forth. This clearly demonstrates the close relation between whistling and language, probably on aspect of the relation between music and language.

    Did you know that the words of a song are stored in the right hemisphere of the brain, where music is stored, and not in the left hemisphere, where language is processed in 98% of human brains?

  4. Benjamin Bruce Says:

    I love whistling. In fact, after reading this post, I think I’ll do it more often. I’m sad to hear that it’s a dying art.

    I don’t know about other folks, but pretty much all the music I listen to is whistlable. Much of what the music industry produces these days I wouldn’t even consider music! If it doesn’t have a tune…

  5. Linda Seth Says:

    C’mon, there are still whistlers around. My husband for one. He mostly whistles the oldies – true, but there is more than just rap music being played/written today. True whistlers are not stymied by mere lack of material.
    I love that my hubby is a whistler. It makes it real easy to find him when we get separated at the grocery store!

  6. rbeard Says:

    My point, precisely. He whistles songs that have memorable melodies, not rap or hip-hop–or even New Wave.


  7. me Says:

    I hate whistling; it is a nasty habit and only makes me associate the person with a lower class. You don’t hear people singing out loud in public, and if people listen to music they have earphones on. Why? Since no one wants to hear it! I also have some hearing problems–the pitch of a whistle is tantamount to nails on a chalkboard.

  8. Cambridge Says:

    Whistling is rude. People used to whistle because they liked a song, nowadays it’s just a matter of showing your “cool attitude”, making it even more rude. Streets are full of guys whistling that seem to think “Hey, can you hear me? Are people noticing me ? Do you see how cool I am ?”.

  9. raco Says:

    I agree with Cambridge, whistling used to be some kind of habit, but nowadays you can tell, with a good sense of empathy, that many people do it to be noticed, to appear as cool and self confident. It became a Joe Sixpack thing. Usually, whistlers have no clue about why it’s rude.

  10. Engineer66 Says:

    Whistling is a human activity which can’t possibly be assigned the epithet of “rudeness” fundamentally. Rudeness as a social quality only and entirely relates to any behavior which inconveniences another person. (Despite the arbitrary assignment of cultural values on that which determines inconvenience.)

    If somebody whistles in a busy office,the distraction to others lies at the basis of rudeness, not the fact of the whistling.

    Surely the links in the brain between music, language and emotion are natural. If somebody feels happy, then a happy tune may come out. (btw, Ludwig Wittgenstein the linguist was a consummate whistler although he never really composed music.)

    I abhor much of modern music – perhaps the “un-whistleability” demonstates its fundamental paucity of value. Can we test for a basic goodness of music on whether one can whistle the melody?

  11. Sunflower Says:

    Hi, I am a subconscious whistler, I do it and don’t even know it. My husband keeps asking me to stop… I don’t see how whistling can be rude, unless you do it super loud to drown out the voice of the person talking to you. It makes me happy I guess and what the heck is wrong with that?! Or maybe I’m already happy and that’s when the whistling comes out… Either way, to be happy is good. If all those whistler-haters could be as happy, maybe they’d understand.

  12. robind Says:

    I love to whistle as well. Much of the music that I listen to is whistleable, and I can’t help but whistle along to some of my favorite music, or whistle a tune stuck in my head while I’m in the shower.

    But I also totally get while it’s rude–it’s comparable to singing along with music. People want to listen to the singer, not you! My girlfriend seems to put up with it, though.

  13. Hank Says:

    I have music in my head all the time. Sometimes it comes out as whistling. This does occasionally annoy people, but I think it is a gift to have a mind full of music.

  14. slpnm Says:

    how can you say that whistling is not rude? if i blasted my music out my windows all day long, my neighbors would complain and have a right to. Yet I’m forced to listen to my neighbor whistle in her yard all day long just because she thinks it’s charming and harmless. If the definition of rude is something that inconveniences another person, then this is most certainly rude. I happen to work at home and I’m forced to go work at the library or a restaurant all the time to escape her disturbing whistling. Even worse, I can’t even leave my windows open on a nice day and enjoy the weather without having to listen to her annoying whistling. For you whistlers out there, it’s called NOISE POLLUTION and it’s RUDE.

  15. rbeard Says:

    Well, let’s see how many ways it is not rude:
    (1) It is not blasted music.
    (2) It does not take place all day long.
    (3) No one is forced to listen to it.

  16. Simphonie Says:

    « (3) No one is forced to listen to it. »
    And no one is forced to look at you if you’re naked, of course.

    To know if something is rude or not, just imagine that everybody, without exception, is doing it.

    Imagine 15 people at work whistling at the same time. It would be a nightmare. So why would you be special and have the right to do it as it requires that others don’t do it? If they don’t do it, then don’t do it too.

    Whisltling is unnecessary and unsolicited noise pollution.

  17. Robert Beard Says:

    Whoever said anything about whistling when other people are around? When whistlers see other people, they stop whistling.

    Anyway, back to my point–why are our radio stations afloat in rap crap and we can only find music on satellites? (I love my Siriusly Sinatra on Sirius). Susan Boyle is currently selling more records at than any recording artist.

    I wouldn’t be surprised that this is not a worldwide phenomenon. In addition to her golden voice, she is surfing on the rising tide of desire for music, songs with words and memorable tunes and chords.

    We are adrift in a sea of frauds–in the recording business, televions networks with the “reality” shows about fraudulent people and real numbskulls, CEOs who legally defraud their companies out of astonishing compensation packages they could not earn in a lifetime, and on and on and on.

    Many of us have turned out lives over to radio shout shows and TV jabber shows and the superficiality they propagate. But the ageing majority have not. Hopefully the Web can keep a few lines open to sanity.

  18. DRX Says:

    Whistlers rarely, if ever, stop for other people. There are several people where I work that whistle all day long. Some days it’s literally nonstop – when one stops, another starts. Some of them are louder than others, but no matter how quietly they do it, it still cuts through the walls like a hot knife through butter. I’ve looked it up and it actually fits the definition of torture. Maybe not for everyone, but for at least a sizable minority, it is. Why would you torture someone day after day and expect to have a good working relationship with them? If someone tortured you every day at work with loud music, cigarette smoke, name your nuisance, etc…, would you want to be nice and friendly to them? Why do people think it’s okay to get on someone’s last nerve and just keep jumping on it? Do you think it’s some kind of right? I do volunteer work with children that seem to be more mature than many of the adults I come into contact with (work or otherwise). My gosh, it’s really not that complicated – LEAVE PEOPLE ALONE! Also, for the record, while I have regrets, I’m fairly content with my life. I’m not constantly depressed, contentious, etc… I do not, however, understand why people engage in a behavior that is so obnoxious that it can drive perfectly sane people to violence.

  19. Simphonie Says:

    « Whoever said anything about whistling when other people are around? »
    Well, it is obvious that if you are alone, then you can whistle, sing, go around naked, smoke, shout, etc. as much as you want, as there is no one to bother. This whole discussion makes no sense if you assume that you’re alone.

    « When whistlers see other people, they stop whistling. »
    You probably mean “some whistlers”. Many whistlers whistle because they want to look cool, so why would they stop when somebody arrives?

    You will probably say that most whistlers don’t whistle to look “cool”. So why did whistling became so popular the last few years? It’s all about semiotics. As sociologists says, the modern era is characterized by the sign taking precedence over reality. We used to whistle because we liked it, now we tend to focus on the sign that it represents. It makes you look cool. That’s why some people whistle so loud that they can be heard from very far.

    I have always been bothered by whistlers. A few years ago, I was bothered maybe once a week. Now it’s more like 10 or 15 times a day, and I still live in the same place. It’s not a coincidence that many people decided to whistle at the same time, it’s just that when sign took precedence over the reality of whistling, then people learned from each other that when doing that, they look cool. Which is one of the most important thing for people, nowadays.

    But all this could be false that my previous comment still applies.

  20. Veronica Says:

    I write this as I sit in my office with the door closed listening to the faint sound of the whistler across the hall. Like someone else said, the sound is like fingernails on a blackboard to me. I’ve tried dropping the line from “It’s A Wonderful Life” when old man Gower said to George Bailey, “GEORGE! YOU’RE NOT PAID TO BE A CANARY!” But, he just smiled at me with a goofy grin. The man,in his 60’s,is a happy-go-lucky fellow who is oblivious to office etiquette. He is the same man who plays his stereo loud enough to be heard up and down the halls. I’ve come to the conclusion that whistlers are simply people who lack an empathic connection to others. They’re not bad people, selfish people or even people who are trying to draw attention to themselves because they think they’re “cool”… they’re simply clueless, ADHD types who need houses to fall on them to get a message. If I said point blank to this fellow, “I’m really annoyed by your whistling…could you please stop?” I’m sure he would do it immediately and would likely be shocked to know that it bothered someone, and possibly more self-conscious about it the next time he unconsciously engaged in the behavior. Learning to be “aware of others” is a skill that some people pick up more readily than others, but for some, must be learned through negative reinforcement by letting them know that they are annoying people–most people want to be liked, so would likely change a behavior if they thought it meant that no one would like them because of it.

  21. Trina Says:

    I have 5…count them FIVE whistlers in my office. I tried to talk to the most annoying one about it. He told me that where he used to work, someone threatened to throw things at him. So he knows, and yet he STILL whistles…especially when he’s walking by my cubicle. I told him it’s like nails on a chalk board, but obviously he doesn’t care. He actually told the other whistlers and they support him. Apparently it’s OK to drive someone mad. I should just burst out in showtunes, Ethel Merman style, whenever I feel like it. Earphones, music, whatever do not work, because nothing blocks out the high pitches. I don’t know why someone would ever think that it’s OK to randomly make annoying high-pitched sounds. It’s just not right!

  22. Amy Says:

    My problem is that the whistler is the owner of the company I work for and no matter how many people tell him that it is disruptive, the more he does it. His (grown) children who run the company also do it but when brought to their attention they stop (the youngest is 42). I think that it is a generational thing and he truly does not understand how rude and annoying it is. It is one of the contributing factors to my looking for employment elsewhere. While not the only issue I have with the company, it is a good indicator of the lack of respect the people who work for him receive. Times change, people change and learning to respect and stop what others find offensive, even though you do not, is what makes progress happen. Back when he was my age there were no cell phones, computers, and all of the other information overloading devices that compounded with whistling can push some people to madness. All I can say is that if I was doing something that upset someone as much as whistling upsets me I would be apologetic and make a valiant effort to curb the offensive behavior. This is my plea to all of the whistlers: be aware of your surroundings and whistle responsibly!

  23. C Says:

    Whistling is noise pollution, pure and simple. I don’t want to hear it at work, in the supermarket or anywhere else unless it is associated with a concert or show that I paid to see. I don’t want to hear your whistling, your singing, your humming, your side of a phone conversation or any other sound the human body is capable of producing.
    What makes you think I would want to hear your whistling? Get over yourself – you are not the center of the universe.
    It is an invasion of my personal space as much as much as when pushing people stand 3 inches behind you in line or a fellow diner reaches across you to grab the salt shaker.
    Whistling is an annoying habit that should only be done when you are alone.

  24. Robert Beard Says:

    You seem to oppose happiness in general. I can understand why expressions of it would irk you.

  25. Trina Says:

    Robert is obviously one of those oblivious types mentioned above. The unhappiness is caused by the torture of the whistling. No one here is complaining about anything BUT whistling. Speaking for myself, I am not an unhappy person–quite the contrary. Perhaps you feel that these whistlers job is to bring me down.

  26. Chels Says:

    I have to disagree with the OP in suggesting that “music these days” is unwhistlable, and that’s why the practise is no longer in vogue. Many young artists incorporate whistling directly into their music such as Andrew Bird or Peter, Bjorn and John.

    I’m sorry, but when I hear someone start to talk about “the rappin’ and the hip hoppin'” music, I have to roll my eyes. Hahaha. Youth culture is far more than just terrible top 40 garbage.

    As much as I love the above whistlers, people who whistle in public spaces like offices and elevators to me are absolutely rude. I will be the first to admit, they probably don’t realize it’s rude, but it totally is.

    The sound is high pitched, loud, and frankly often off-key or just random sounds. I can’t leave my desk. I can’t escape the sound, I just have to sit there feeling like someone is sticking pins under my fingernails. I want to punch babies. I want to drive an ice pick through my temporal lobe. I want to throw my keyboard at him as he walks by. I want to scream “Don’t you realize you’re driving people MAD?!”

    I’m normally purely pacifist.

    So no, I don’t think whistling in general is gone or waning: many artists still utilize the art and are very proficient at it. However, I do think people are starting to come to terms with the fact that whistling by people in confined spaces can drive otherwise normal people to the brink of sanity. It’s pure torture to inflict others with off-key, high pitched emissions of “joy and happiness”.

  27. amplefire Says:

    My wife just chastised me for whistling the same song several times in one day, and it turned into a little argument over the whole issue of whistling. She’s from Russia and thinks it’s lower class. Then again, I’ve never visited a gloomier-faced country in my whole life. You almost never see people smiling unless they’re plastered drunk, and you never make chit chat or smile with employees in shops like we do more so in the west.

    So from her point of view being from such an “repressed” country (from my perspective), I understand how she would hold that opinion against whistling. But anti whistling sentiments in U.S.?

    I was born in the 60s and grew up with whistling all around me. I can’t ever remember a time when I was annoyed by someone else whistling. I am a musician and always have music in my head and sometimes I whistle, but always to myself. I don’t try to project it or anything and it’s largely unconscious. My grandfather used to whistle to the birds and get into conversations with them. I do that myself from time to time because it’s a lot of fun.

    I would say that all of this expressiveness (singing, whistling, talking to strangers, laughing, etc) IS most definitely a symptom of peace and happiness inside a person. I do think that people who lack patience, generally speaking, and who are quick to be irritated (a mild form of anger) should look within a little bit deeper. Unless someone has hijacked your space and forcing his whistling on you, preventing you from doing your work, etc. It really shouldn’t be a problem. Perhaps in this age of independence, we’re losing our sense of each other in the public arena.

    Back before people had iphones and other portable gadgets, there was a lot more singing and whistling on the streets. A lot more interactive conversations with people too. Since the 6OS, we rarely speak to strangers asking for directions. We don’t go into a store for change in order to call from a pay phone. SO MUCH has changed, and in my mind, not exactly for the better. We all love the perks of technology, but it’s humanity I’m really worried about these days.

  28. amplefire Says:

    I meant to say “Since the GPS, we rarely speak to strangers asking for directions.” Dr. Goodword, feel free to correct that or just post this correct. Thanks!

  29. Miss P Says:

    I love to whistle, and have been brought up tp think of it as a cheerful expression
    Of being happy in the moment. When I feel good, a little tune whistles from my lips
    Without me thinking about it. It drives my bf mad, he says it is rude.
    I think he is a kill joy, litterally putting a stop to my cheery bliss.

  30. Fost Says:

    Whistling, in an office environment, is INCREDIBLY annoying.

    Generally considered a cheery thing to do it’s difficult to bring this up with office whistlers without sounding like you are a grumps.

    Think about it though – you are foisting a high pitched version of your music onto everyone without their consent. Who else does this – kids on buses with their phones. Do you find that annoying? Of course you do.

    So yeah whistling – fine in the park. Not fine in an enclosed environment where people can’t escape from you.

  31. Leslie landberg Says:

    I love hearing people whistle, it never bothers me, unless it is done really poorly. I am a musician. I think there ought to be more carefree expressions in the world. I go through life with a smile on my face, being friendly to everyone. I am observant and most people look perfectly miserable to me. I think people have become so shut off from others that any imposition upon their precious “space” has become intolerable. You all have lost your humanity and your joy and you are in denial about it and predictably self-righteous.

Leave a Reply