Friday, January 27, 2006

History: Etymology of Pennywhistle and Tin Whistle

I've been doing some research on the origin and use of the words "pennywhistle" and "tin whistle." It seems that usage was uncommon until the 20th century. Robert Clarke began selling his instruments around 1843, but his company was advertising them as "Clarke London Flageolets" or "Clarke Flageolets" in 1900. I checked some early 20th century reference books, and neither the dictionary nor the thesaurus nor the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica mention either term, although the latter's whistle entry does mention metal flageolets.

Although usage seems to be uncommon, however, both terms do predate Robert Clarke. With the aid of my friendly local librarians I found citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. Note that, unlike most dictionaries, OED inclusion and citations are chronological rather than by popularity so an OED citation does not mean that a word was in common use.

At any rate, the OED's citation for "tin whistle" comes from John Neal's 1825 novel Brother Jonathan:

As if he were sounding a charge with... a tin-whistle.

The OED has multiple citations for "penny whistle:"

1730 Gabriel Odingsells Bay's Opera III. 64 "Musicians with Halters about their Necks—Their Instruments strung behind, penny Whistles, Trumpets, and so forth, in their Hands"
1817 Scott Rob Roy I. x. 233 "Pipes!—They look more like penny-whistles."
1931 N. Douglas London Street Games (ed. 2) 29 "I went down the lane to buy a penny whistle, A copper came by and pinch my penny whistle."

It would seem that the speculation that the words "tin whistle" and "pennywhistle" date back to the first mass production, namely, Clarke's instruments, is probably incorrect:

  • The words were in use earlier.
  • Clarke and Clarke's company called their products "flageolets" for at least part of their history.
  • The words didn't become popular enough to be reflected in dictionaries or encyclopedias until the last half of the 20th century.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Technique: Grey Larsen on Breathing

I found a Grey Larsen article online, Advice for Flute and Whistle Players on Finding Good Places to Breathe in Irish Dance Tunes [PDF], which covers some of the same material I discussed in my comments on breathing as ornamentation in more detail:

Players of instruments other than flute and whistle may want to bear in mind that although they can, and often do, play in a non-stop manner, their music may benefit from the introduction of occasional spaces. Creating such spaces can clarify your phrasing, much as a sentence becomes more clear with the appropriate use of punctuation marks such as commas, semicolons and the like. So, it is important and useful for fiddlers, accordion players, pipers, banjo players, etc., not just flute and whistle players, to develop a sense of when and where to eloquently leave out notes.

The whole article is worthwhile.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Tweaks: Methods of Muffling a Whistle

The Contenders

The Hoover Whitecaps

The Hoover Whitecap is a line of replacement fipples handmade by Mack Hoover, which sell for about $25 each. They're available in "quiet" and "regular" varieties. Pictured at right are both variations. The "regular" model, mounted on the whistle in the photo, has a somewhat larger window than the "quiet" model.

The Blu-Tac™ Tweak

For this tweak, make a small ball of "Blue-Tac"/poster putty and put it in the window of the whistle. The further you put it towards your mouth, the more it quiets the whistle, and the airier the sound.

The Tape Tweak

For this tweak cover part of the window with tape as illustrated. I usually use clear tape, but it didn't show in the photos very well so I've used blue painting tape in the photo at right for illustrative purposes. The more you cover the window, the more it quiets the whistle, and the airier the sound.

The "Joanie Madden" technique

Joanie described a technique on the Chiff and Fipple message board where you place the mouthpiece against your chin, below your mouth, and blow down into the fipple window (almost as if it were a flute). This is very quiet indeed, but I'm not including it in this comparison as it's a different animal altogether; try it and you'll see why.

The Results

(All measurements in dbSPL, A weighted.)

WhistleLow DLow GHigh DHigh GHigh BComments
Un-tweaked Feadóg Mark III7481939394
Un-tweaked Clarke Sweetone7078909093
"Standard" Hoover Whitecap7078809090Best-sounding fipple.
Feadóg with Tape Muffler6876868687Very airy sound. Fiddly.
"Quiet" Hoover Whitecap6169828488Sounds better than un-tweaked whistle. Very low air requirements; harder to play low D and E.
Feadóg with "poster putty" tweak6668798184Airy, mellower than un-tweaked whistle.


Although the Blu-Tac tweak produces the quietest results, it comes with a considerable cost in terms of tone quality. The "quiet" Hoover Whitecap produces the best tone quality of anything other than a non-quiet Hoover, but has different playing characteristics (much lower air requirements, especially on the low notes) than the other tweaks. Finally, none of the tweaks cuts the volume by a huge amount; 84 dBSPL, while quieter than the un-tweaked whistle, is considerably louder than normal conversation.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

WWW: Raffle for the Porcupine Clinic

Whistlesmith Daniel Bingamon is hosting a raffle for the Porcupine Health Clinic, the only independent Indian community-controlled health clinic in the US, on his site. Your donations to a good cause can win you a good whistle!