Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Wild West Sayings We Use Today, Part 36

All aboard as we begin another journey on the word-history train! Come along for the fun of it, and learn as you go. :)  

Clean as a Whistle

This phrase describes something that is spic-and-span. You might ask yourself, what’s so clean about an object you blow through? That’s a good question. It doesn’t help that the origin of ‘clean as a whistle’ is uncertain, but the best answer is that the meaning of this phrase evolved from its 18th-century meaning of ‘utterly complete’ to ‘pristine.’ Both nuances remain with the term today. When a child licks his ice cream bowl until it is empty, he leaves the bowl ‘clean as a whistle.’ I would still wash it though, and so would you. Once your dishes are ‘clean as a whistle,’ you wouldn’t mind using the bowl.

To complicate matters, the early form of this phrase was ‘clear as a whistle.’ Call to mind the peal of a whistle cutting through the air, and the ‘complete’ meaning becomes a lot more understandable. Why the phrase took on the meaning of ‘pure’ is not known, but theories abound. Maybe it comes from the fact that brass train whistles were kept clean. Or it could have happened because whistles need to be kept clean to exude their purest sounds. My favorite is that the clean, piercing sound of a whistle inspired the shift in meaning.

Historical Reference: The Oxford English Dictionary places the first occurrence of the idiom in the “The Dialect of Craven V1: In the West Riding of the County of York, with a Copious Glossary by A Native Of Craven, William Carr (1828): “The dialect of Craven, in the West-Riding of the County of York (anon.) 1824, 1828. s.v., ‘As clean as a whistle’, a proverbial simile, signifying completely, entirely.”

Example: She polished her silver teapot until it was clean as a whistle.

Small Potatoes

Today, as they did in the Wild West, ‘small potatoes’ described something of little consequence, importance, or worth. 

(Side note: I feel the need to defend the potato, which is rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Studies indicate they can balance blood sugar, reduce the risk of heart disease, and boost the immune system. Potatoes may also improve digestive health and combat signs of aging. Because potatoes are filling, they can curb hunger pains and cravings during weight loss.)

Small potatoes was well-established in America during the first part of the 19th century. It originated much earlier, however.

Historical Reference: Samuel Taylor Coleridge used a strikingly similar phrase with the same meaning in a letter to another English poet, Roberty Southey. Coleridge referred to William Wordsworth in the letter, which he dated ‘17th July 1797’: “Wordsworth is a very great man, the only man to whom at all times and in all modes of excellence I feel myself inferior, the only one, I mean, whom I have yet met with, for the London literati appear to me to be very much like little potatoes, that is, no great things, a compost of nullity and dullity.”

(Side note #2: What an interesting word he created there: ‘dullity.’ I like it.)

What may be the earliest instance of ‘small potatoes’ appeared in The Boston Morning Post (Boston, Massachusetts) on September 7, 1832: “The Onion Crop on Cape Cod, it is feared, will turn out rather “small potatoes” this year.” However, the usage seems to imply that the phrase was in wide use by this date.

My paycheck is small potatoes compared to what my brother makes.

We're back at the station for another month. Thanks for traveling along with me on another fun exploration of Wild West Sayings We Use Today. Let me know in the comments your thoughts on the double meaning of 'clean as a whistle.' Do you agree that potatoes are much-maligned? 

What's New With Janalyn Voigt

I'll admit to some doubt that summer would ever arrive. In the Pacific Northwest, where I live, spring brought more rain than the area has seen in eighty years. With the sun shining, it's harder to remember the storms  Bootsy is a stray cat that adopted me. I don't let him roam, although I might if coyotes didn't regularly snatch up pets. 'Boo,' as I like to call him, is harness-trained, and he takes me on regular walks. We linger more on our jaunts these days, due to the balmy weather. 

I had a little more time to indulge my cat while The Whispering Wind (Montana Gold, book 6) was in my editor's capable hands. The manuscript just returned to me for edits, however. I hope to strike a balance between my home life and writing life. I haven't been good at this in the past, but I think I've learned my lesson. Slow and steady wins the day. 
Want to know more? Visit the website for Janalyn Voigt.

Discover Montana Gold 

Set during a time of unrest in America, the Montana Gold series follows the lives and loves of a family of Irish immigrants who must call upon their faith to survive in the Wild West.  Learn more. 


  1. I very much enjoy your idiom posts. Clear as a whistle makes more sense. And in defense of potatoes, small potatoes that is they are the newest food offering at the grocery store. These small new potatoes cook easily and are touted for their nutritional value.

  2. Thanks for posting today. I agree that clear as a whistle would refer to the piercing note that comes from a quality whistle. I too enjoy potatoes, but tend to avoid carbs. When I do eat something like that, it's often potatoes.