Words in the News


In what looked suspiciously like a planned exchange, Boris Johnson was asked in the House of Commons this week if the EU should be told to ‘go whistle’ for the money they are expected to ask the UK for as part of the Brexit deal. The Foreign Secretary obligingly responded:

I think that the sums that I have seen … seem to me to be extortionate and I think ‘go whistle’ is an entirely appropriate expression.

Boris could equally well have told his interlocutor that Brussels could whistle for their money, and it seems clear that ‘go whistle’ is standing in for a range of more vigorous expressions unsuited to the parliamentary setting. As well as cementing his position as the champion of the Brexiteers,  Boris confirmed his reputation for a level of plain speaking bluntness rarely seen in the diplomatic arena. The EU’s chief negotiator showed what he thought of this by commenting that he couldn’t hear whistling, ‘just a clock ticking’, a reference to the next round of Brexit talks which are due to begin next week.

It is worth noting that whistling can be seen as a defiant, even a subversive act. It was long regarded as being unseemly for a woman to whistle, as shown by the expression ‘A whistling woman and a crowing hen are neither fit for God nor men.’ Its variant, ‘A whistling woman and a crowing hen, Will bring Old Harry [the devil] out of his den’ suggests that for a woman to whistle is positively satanic, and it seems that many believe it is actually prohibited in the Bible, although this is not the case.

While she doesn’t actually whistle, the character played by Lauren Bacall evoked these sinful connotations when she unforgettably asked Humphrey Bogart’s Steve whether he knew how to whistle in To Have and Have Not. Bogart’s wolf whistle in response, which the audience sees but Bacall’s character doesn’t, confirms that her words are much more than a simple explanation of how to ‘make a tune or musical notes by forcing air through your mouth‘.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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