Clean as a Whistle

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Meaning of Idiom 'Clean as a Whistle'

Clean as a whistle means extremely clean, speaky clean, clear, spotless. 1,2.

There are other possible meanings are less common in modern use:

1. Completely, thoroughly. 3

2. Innocent, guilt-free, free from wrongdoing. 1,2

3. With great skill, easily, or neatly done. 4

Compare clean as a hound's tooth.

Usage

"He wasn't the greatest cook in the world, but he kept his kitchen as clean as a whistle."

"I was amazed at his prowess with the axe. With one swing he chopped off the branchess as clean as a whistle."

"His record is as clean as a whistle. He's never even gotten a parking ticket."

"She gets in trouble every week but gets out clean as a whistle every time."

Origin

Early 1800's.

The most common modern use, referring to actual cleanliness, makes this idiom especially confusing. What does a whistle have to do with being clean? Most likely, the expression is a corruption of an older one, "as clear as a whistle."

A whistle makes a clear tone that can completely cut through noise and be heard over long distances. Thus, the expression referred to something being complete or thorough.

Over the years, "clear" came to be replaced with "clean." Although this replacement might seem to be caused by confusing the words, it may make sense if you consider that, given the meaning of the expression, both clear and clean could be used in a similar sense. For example, if someone cuts through a piece of wood evenly and smoothly, he might say he has cut the wood clear, sheer, or clean. Given the existence of the idiom "clear as a whistle" you can imagine "as a whistle" being added to "he cut the wood clean."

When clean came to be substitued for clear, the meaning of the idiom was corrupted and whistles came to be associated with cleanliness, literally and figuratively. 5,3

Sources
1. Spears, Richard A. McGraw-Hill's American Idioms Dictionary. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008.
2. Ayto, John. Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms. Oxford: Oxford U, 2010.
3. Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
5. Cryer, Max. Curious English Words and Phrases:: The Truth Behind the Expressions We Use. Exisle Publishing, 2012.

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