Word Matters Podcast

The History of 'Whistleblower'

Word Matters, Episode 82

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Whistleblowers didn't always tell secrets, and hipsters weren't always hip. This episode explains how whistleblower and hipster came to have their current meanings.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, the breath of fresh air brought by the word whistleblower and hipsters before they were hip. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Emily Brewster: The word whistleblower brings some dignity to a collection of synonyms that formerly did not exactly invite willing association. It also had some shifting to do to get there. Ammon explains.

Ammon Shea: In English, we have this great tradition of compound nouns, taking two words and compounding them, putting them together. And in a lot of cases, the way that the word moves is it goes from an open compound of having two individual words to two words separated by a hyphen or something, and then we end up with a closed compound. The word grows together. And in a lot of cases, these words have very distinct meanings which make perfect sense when they start off, and then when you put them together and you travel forward several hundred years or a hundred years, it's a little opaque.

Ammon Shea: An example of this is jerkwater, which we define as meaning remote, unimportant, like a jerkwater town. And this has its roots in 19th century train travel in which jerkwater referred to when trains traveled via steam engine. They needed water to cool them, and a lot of times small trains that would go on rural lines had to take on water, and these trains were called jerk waters from the motion of jerking the water up in buckets to supply the engine. And so the movement of jerking the water up became an adjective used to describe the kind of place it was, and that then moved to a generalized term. And so most-

Emily Brewster: So it wasn't derogatory at all.

Ammon Shea: I think it probably had small and unimportant connotations from the beginning, but it's moved away from the train-specific meaning.

Peter Sokolowski: It's like backwater, in the sense that it's a remote place that may be unsophisticated or something, but it's not a place full of jerks.

Ammon Shea: Right. It's not a watering hole full of jerky people. Exactly.

Ammon Shea: We have all kinds of other words like this. Meltdown is a great example because we all associate meltdown... it could be an emotional breakdown. It could be somebody having some kind of fit. We associate it with nuclear reactors melting down, but the earliest use that we've seen of the word was an industry term in the ice cream manufacturing industry, in which it referred to the point at which ice cream would melt. It was a very specific term for ice cream melting. And nobody, of course, uses it that way anymore.

Ammon Shea: Some of the other compounds that we have, they've stayed a little closer to their roots. And I think a great case of this is whistleblower, which is, of course, a word that is often in the news and we often have people asking us about. And a whistleblower is one who reveals something covert or who informs against another person. I think whistleblower is a little more forgiving than many of the words we have for this kind of person. It's a little more gentle than snitch, fink or stoolie or squealer or tattletale or something like that.

Ammon Shea: When whistleblower first came into use, it was in the middle of the 19th century. And it really was just for somebody or something that blew a whistle. "A kettledrum, a fifer and a whistleblower forming the orchestra." "They, the pipe-layers and the whistleblowers of the city, are sounding the alarm in earnest." And then it shifted a little bit at the end of the 19th century. And I don't know if this was with the advent of handheld whistles or with sporting leagues, but towards the end of the 19th century, it took on a more specific meaning, which was somebody who blew a whistle in, say, a sporting contest. It began-

Peter Sokolowski: An official or referee?

Ammon Shea: Right. "A football match was arranged between teams, blah, blah, blah, Mr. Arnfield being unanimously elected whistleblower." That's from 1895. "He looked on the secretary as a personification of all the good qualities of what a whistleblower should be." This is about a football team, things like that. So it starts to be used in the 1890s in this very specific sense.

Ammon Shea: It's not until the 20th century that blowing the whistle first takes on this extended meeting, which we define as calling public or official attention to something such as wrongdoing that's kept secret. And in the 1920s, we start to see use. There was a citation from the San Francisco Chronicle: "I am loath to believe that Mr. Johnson ever blew the whistle on a trusting friend." And "thinking of saving his mother and father humiliation, he testified in explaining how he blew the whistle on his former friends."

Ammon Shea: So we see the word is starting to shift and move around, and then we don't get to the modern sense of whistleblower that we all know and love today until the 1960s. And in 1963, we see "the statement later says that despite the fact that Playboy was among the earliest whistleblowers and despite government Rockefeller's assurances that no economics reprisals would be suffered," it's about people actually informing on other people. 1966, "Sidney Slater, official whistleblower of the Brooklyn Gallo mob, is running a citywide printing business under an alias." And so that's when we start to see the word take on this solidified modern meeting. It's not that far from where it started. It really is still somebody blowing a whistle, isn't it?

Emily Brewster: It's really this metaphorical extension of a concrete task or act. It's a really common trajectory for a word to take.

Peter Sokolowski: And it has this virtuous association. It's exposing wrongdoing, is the idea of a whistleblower, because otherwise these other ideas like "snitch" or "tattletale" or whatever have lesser or more petty connotations.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely. "Stoolie," "stool pigeon," "rat fink," none of these are things that you would self-describe with pride. "I was the stoolie that took down the organization." You say, "I was the whistleblower that took down the organization." That's an entirely different feeling, isn't it?

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: That's right. And for example, I think it was 2002, Time magazine had their person of the year was actually three people, the whistleblowers Sherron Watkins of Enron, Coleen Rowley of the FBI, and Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom. Three women.

Ammon Shea: We think of them definitely as whistleblowers and not as snitches.

Emily Brewster: They would never have had it be the stoolies.

Ammon Shea: Person of the year, the finks. That would be great.

Emily Brewster: It just would not work. That's right. I think also you become a whistleblower because you are an insider, and I don't think you necessarily have to be an insider to be a snitch or a rat fink or a stoolie.

Peter Sokolowski: It means that you know something, but not that you are part of the organization or something.

Emily Brewster: That's my sense anyway.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, the other thing about whistleblower I never thought of is this metaphor works in the sense that you are alerting the public. You blow the whistle to announce the train, as it were. You're exposing something to the public. Everybody can hear the whistle.

Ammon Shea: We include in our definition is that a whistleblower is commonly protected legally from retaliation, and so it does have a status that separates it from these other words. Near synonyms, I would say.

Emily Brewster: Well, and it's codified. There are significant laws and statutes that have to do with how whistleblowers are treated. So the word also has very formal legal application.

Ammon Shea: I do think it's striking, though, if you look at what we give as synonyms for a whistleblower. All of them seem in some way, I would say, deeply opprobrious. Betrayer, canary, deep throat, fink, informant, informer, narc, rat, rat fink, snitch, snitcher, squealer, stool pigeon, stoolie, talebearer, tattler, tattletale, none of these are words of pride, so-

Emily Brewster: No, definitely. Another thing I like about whistleblower is that it has this very classically English morphology. It's a word formed by a noun object plus an agent noun. Whistle plus blower. It's got that agent suffix -er on the end, one who blows the whistle, which is also in talebearer, one who bears a tale, bearing being to tell in this case.

Ammon Shea: Sure.

Emily Brewster: It's a very classically English word as opposed to a Latinate word. It's a very English, English word.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. Stay tuned for the lowdown on hipster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: Word Matters listeners get 25% off all dictionaries and books at shop.merriam-webster.com by using the promo code matters at checkout. That's matters, M-A-T-T-E-R-S, at shop.merriam-webster.com.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: The image called to mind by the word hipster changes according to the fashion of the day. But when English speakers first uttered the word, fashion wasn't really part of the equation. Ammon will elucidate.

Ammon Shea: When we're looking into the history of words and their uses, one of the things that's always enjoyable is when we come across words which are older than we think they might be. It forces us to reexamine how we feel about either the word or the thing that it describes. And some recent cases that we've come across, one was online, meaning connected to a computer system, which in fact goes back to 1950, a book called High-speed Computing Devices, and has a very clear use, the question of whether online or offline operation is more suitable, very similar to how we use it today. And also energy drink, which turns out even though it's very popular now to have energy drinks and they're having kind of a renaissance, goes back to at least 1904. And one other one, though, that we don't fully define is the word hipster.

Ammon Shea: I say that we don't fully define it because we do have an entry for hipster: "a person who is unusually aware of and interested in new and unconventional patterns as in (jazz or fashion)." We do have an entry for it, but there are some earlier meanings that we don't define because they've fallen away. And they were, as is often the case here, strikingly literal, in a way. And one of the earliest ones that we know of is the hipster was somebody who carried a hip flask. And this was going back to Prohibition. There was a use of it from 1921: "Hippety hippety hop, a hipster meets a cop. Away, pell mell, to a dungeon cell. Hippety, hippety hop."

Ammon Shea: Another use a few years later. "A pint of hooch isn't much, but nine months is a long time in the opinion of old-time, joy-cup hipsters who subscribe to the theory that a pint is only sufficient to cause a mild attack of heartburn." Prohibition was repealed in 1933, so I think pretty much right after that, hipster in that early sense lost its currency, as did another word which we've touched on before and have an entire episode on, which is scofflaw. Scofflaw originally came in, I think, 1926—one who did not abide by the restrictions of Prohibition. And once Prohibition ended, scofflaw lost that meaning entirely. So Prohibition changed some small aspects of the language.

Ammon Shea: But after hipster lost that early meaning, it started being applied to hips-shaking dancers. So 1932, there was a use in Variety: "Nina May McKinley, snake hipster, led off Love, Nuts and Noodles." Another citation from Baltimore, the Afro-American: "Nelson Jones is said to be the best hipster in Everett." And so this one stuck around for a little while longer. It was used for dancers, usually, not always though, female. And we see it throughout most of the 1930s, and then it gets bumped.

Ammon Shea: And it really gets bumped, we know, in 1938, and it's with the publication of a very famous work, a kind of slang lexicography which was Cab Calloway published Hepster's Dictionary. And there's a lot of overlap, of course, between hepster and hipster. A lot of sources define them synonymously, as with hep and hip. And I think beginning in 1938, hipster takes on this new meaning, which is... It's morphed as it's gone along, but it's really supplanted the earlier two meetings of hipster. Do you have a definite idea that comes up in your mind when you think of the hipster?

Emily Brewster: Oh, I think of a young man with a trimmed beard, possibly a mustache that twirls up a little at the end, and some skinny jeans and maybe a plaid shirt and very particular taste in music, who loves bands that I've never heard of, and that's great, and also maybe is interested in bespoke butchery.

Ammon Shea: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Emily Brewster: This is probably not what hipsters look like anymore. I don't know what hipsters look like anymore. Actually, I haven't been anywhere in two years. I don't know what anybody looks like anymore.

Ammon Shea: Yeah. I feel like that's a working definition. I'm sticking with someone who dances enthusiastically with their hips because that's easier for me to pinpoint.

Emily Brewster: Well, I think our definition is actually quite good, in that it is not nailed down to particular fashion. It is attached very particularly to what is fashionable, and that will change over time-

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: ... of course. A difference between scofflaw and hipster that's interesting to me, is that scofflaw really just got broader. It stretched out to cover other kinds of law-breaking activities. And hipster, the hip flask meaning, just completely fell away.

Ammon Shea: It just died. Right.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, it just died completely. And the hip shaking, I don't know if that one has really completely died. I have no recollection of ever hearing that use. And then this hepster/hipster seems like its own incarnation. It's not actually related to the hips at all. It's not anatomical.

Ammon Shea: You're right. There is a definite semantic and derivational disconnect there.

Ammon Shea: One of the things I think is interesting is the extent to which people are so often judgmental about hipsters. And you're right. They do change from... Each generation has a new take on what the hipster will wear or be partial to.

Ammon Shea: I remember coming across a citation from Herbert Gold who had a book in 1962, The Age Of Happy Problems. And he says, "In other words, the hipster is a spectacular instance of the flight from emotion," which is kind of pejorative, but also it's broad enough that it can cover the hipster in any age.

Emily Brewster: The flight from emotion. Wow.

Ammon Shea: I think it speaks to a kind of amusedly ironic detachment.

Peter Sokolowski: There's an illustration by an illustrator whose website is "Dustinland." Dustin Glick, I believe, is his name. Dustinland.com. And he's got the theory of hipster relativity.

Peter Sokolowski: And it's a queue, a line of young men, each one looking to his left and each person to the left dressed in a noticeably more relaxed fashion than the person next to him. And so you have the very first person, a man in a business suit looking to his left. And his dialogue bubble simply says, "Hipster." And the man next to him is just a guy in informal clothes, a shirt that's open at the collar and chinos. And he's saying "hipster" to the next one, who's wearing a T-shirt and jeans, who says "hipster" to the next one, who's wearing plaid and hiking boots, who says "hipster" to the next one, who's got tattoos and a mountain bike, who says "hipster" to the next one, who's got a twirly mustache, a trilby, and suspenders and a bow tie. In other words, it's kind of like an amplification. Every time, it's turned up just a little notch. One person's hipster is another person's square.

Peter Sokolowski: I do have a historic idea. I love '40s jazz, and I do have a sense of the word hipster in a kind of historic sense thinking: Oh, there was a specific fashion. A very baggy pants, very wide-legged trousers riding higher than they would today, often a beret and those horn-rimmed glasses. Dizzy Gillespie always had that little soul patch. There was even almost like a marketing icon of Dizzy Gillespie. No face, but just the glasses, the little beard and the beret, and you knew who that was. And those were striped suits usually, and they looked comfortable and glamorous. And it was a kind of nightlife that was specific to bebop. And that's one complete idea about hipsters or hipsterism that I have in my head that is separate from the one that you described, Emily, which I also can hold as an idea.

Emily Brewster: What year? Or what decade is that?

Peter Sokolowski: 1945, '46.

Emily Brewster: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Okay.

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Hipster is a useful word, and it continues to be used, because it is not locked down-

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Emily Brewster: ... to a decade. It is about the now.

Peter Sokolowski: I looked up hipster in my own Twitter feed, and I gave a definition 10 years ago. And here's my proposed definition, which is "people younger than you who do not invite you to their parties."

Emily Brewster: We are sad to be saying goodbye this week to one of our producers, Adam Maid. Thank you, Adam, for getting this little podcast off the ground and flying at altitude. We'll miss your competence, insight, and humor more than you can know. Best of luck in your next endeavor.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us nepm.org. And for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com.

Emily Brewster: Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci.

Emily Brewster: For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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