Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

A Whistlestop Tour of "Whistleblowers"

Edward Snowden's leaking of National Security Agency information has put the term whistleblower back in the news. Since the early 1970s, whistleblower has come to be seen as a positive term, but before that it had been decidedly negative for many decades.

As I describe in my "Word on the Street" column for the Wall Street Journal, it was Ralph Nader who successfully rehabilitated whistleblower from its previous incarnation as a slightly nicer way to say "rat," "fink," or "squealer." Let's take a look at the term's evolution.

The earliest examples of whistleblowers are, unsurprisingly, people blowing actual whistles, particularly boxing and football referees whose whistleblowing signaled an official break in the action. The earliest figurative extensions of "blowing the whistle" simply have to do with stopping some activity:

"Ah, say, Sadie! Blow the whistle on that, can't you?" says I.
— Sewell Ford, "'Professor Shorty' McCabe, Physical Culturist: Beating Ripley to It," San Francisco Chronicle, Apr 4, 1909

Shortly after Claude went limping past the 40th Mile Stone, he had to blow the Whistle on Friend Wife, who was getting ready to send Daughter to Europe and put Son in Yale.
— George Ade, New Fables in Slang, 1916

By the 1930s, "blowing the whistle" developed a new meaning: not just stopping something, but trying to stop something shady from going on by making a fuss. The "whistleblower" became an object of scorn among those social groups where informing on one's peers was heavily stigmatized. In my Wall Street Journal column, I mention this example from 1936, brought to my attention by Garson O'Toole, in which a sportswriter uses the whistleblower tag on Jacob Pfefer, a promoter of professional wrestling who had grown disillusioned with the sport's artifice:

Jake is a whistle-blower, which is unforgivable. Not only that, but he tweetles his cop-caller with thick Yiddish overtones. A couple of years ago, during one of his numerous altercations with the Curley clique, he mounted a soap box in Times Square and screamed "All rassling is a lousy fake! I know, because I've been in the business for 20 years! I never saw a rassling match yet, or had anything to do with one. that was on the level!"
— Jack Miley, Washington Post, Apr. 27, 1936

Sportswriters were particularly enamored with the term. Barry Popik located other examples from 1936 written by John Lardner (son of Ring Lardner), including one describing how baseball legend Rogers Hornsby, then nearing the end of his career, had launched a "clean-up campaign" of the woeful St. Louis Browns, despite the fact that "Mr. Hornsby is not a whistle-blower by nature."

Another colorful example from the era had to do with John F. Curry, who led New York City's Tammany Hall political machine until he was ousted from the position by internal foes. Curry exacted his revenge in 1938 by testifying about Tammany's various rackets to Manhattan District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey. Here's how syndicated columnist Leonard Lyons described Curry's one complaint about the press coverage:

John F. Curry, the former leader of Tammany Hall, became the subject of much comment as the result of his revelations of the secret operations of Tammany. But despite the scorn with which the testimony of a "whistle blower" usually is received, Curry objected to only one reference to him in the reports of his testimony. He called Damon Runyon to his side. "Damon," he complained, "how did you ever come to write — that I was 70 years old?"
— Leonard Lyons, Washington Post, Sept. 7, 1938

Victor Steinbok informed me of another usage of whistleblower from around this time, in a 1937 Life magazine article that uses the term to describe a union official who blows a whistle to signal the beginning of a sit-down strike. I haven't found any further evidence that these union whistleblowers played a role in the development of the term, but certainly whistleblower came to be recognized as a nasty epithet in union circles. This was still the case in 1960, when Teamsters Union chief Jimmy Hoffa, not known for betraying secrets, was accused of being a whistleblower by a fellow labor leader:

Paul Hall [president of the Seafarers International Union of North America] clarified yesterday which of his several maritime labor "hats" he was wearing last week when he attacked James R. Hoffa as a "notorious fink and whistle blower."
— Edward A. Morrow, New York Times, Apr. 20, 1960

A decade later, consumer advocate Ralph Nader began to use whistleblower and whistleblowing in a much more positive light, in a series of speeches calling for "professional responsibility" in corporations and government. Nader's activism turned the expression around, so that now when Snowden is called a whistleblower, it is often viewed as an expression of sympathy or solidarity with his actions. As I told Time's Newsfeed, calling Snowden a leaker is seen by some media outlets as a more neutral designation. It's a testament to just how much Nader and his allies were able to reshape the once-disparaged whistleblower into a term that evokes honorable civic-mindedness.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday July 19th 2013, 1:26 PM
Comment by: David D. (Seattle, WA)
The images I have are of the British Bobbie blowing his shrill whistle to alert other Bobbies of a problem & to seek their assistance, and of an American cop blowing his whistle as a traffic direction or to attempt to stop a fleeing (presumed) wrongdoer.
In Germany, where obedience to the desires of officialdom in the form of policeman is common, an American friend having just performed the crime of jay walking and hearing the whistle of the cop on the corner, simply walked into a familiar shop and casually exited the rear entrance to continue on his way to the shocked awe of onlooking pedestrians.
In these times, young women required to traverse unsavory neighborhoods, are well advised to have a whistle to announce need of help if accosted by some nasty character.
The point is, of course, that faulty behavior be brought to the attention of some group, hoping to cause correction, but at least alerting others to the behavior.

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