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.


russ said...

Of possible interest: the same instrument is known as "fla┼╝olet" in Polish. Etymological coincidence? I don't think so! :)

Anonymous said...

My grandmother always sang the pennywhistle song to me "I went down the lane to buy a pennywhistle, a copper came along and took my pennywhistle......", I have searched this rhyme and your site is the only one to have made reference to it. Do you have more information on the song or any ideas how to find it's origins? Thanks a lot.

Craig said...

Anonymous, I don't know anything beyond the citation I included from the Oxford English Dictionary. However, the title of that reference is "London Street Games," and I know that singing games were popular in the Victorian era (similar to "Ring around the Rosie" today). So there could have been a song connected with the game. I would suggest trying to get a copy of that book. If you cannot find it online, or at your local library, you might be able to get it via interlibrary loan.

Anonymous said...

"I went down the lane to buy a pennywhistle,
a copper came along and took my pennywhistle.
I asked him for it back; he said he hadn't got it.
Aye, aye, curly-knob, you've got it in your pocket!"