meaning and origin of the phrase ‘to wet one’s whistle’


How Are You Going To Wet Your Whistle (When the whole Darn World Goes Dry) - 1919

How Are You Going To Wet Your Whistle (When the Whole Darn World Goes Dry?) – 1919
a song by Francis Byrne, Frank McIntyre and Percy Wenrich
image: The Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection



The noun whistle has long been jocular for the mouth or the throat as used in speaking or singing. The phrase to wet one’s whistle, meaning to take a drink, is found as early as the late 14th century in The Reeve’s Tale, by the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1340-1400):

(interlinear translation – © President and Fellows of Harvard College)
He yexeth, and he speketh thurgh the nose
     He belches, and he speaks through the nose
As he were on the quakke, or on the pose.
     As if he had hoarseness, or had a cold.
To bedde he goth, and with hym goth his wyf.
     To bed he goes, and with him goes his wife.
As any jay she light was and jolyf,
     She was as cheerful and jolly as any jay,
So was hir joly whistle wel ywet.
     So was her jolly whistle well wetted.

In his textbook Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse (1530), the teacher and scholar of languages John Palsgrave (died 1554) translated the expression into French:

(1852 edition)
I wete my whystell, as good drinkers do. Je crocque la pie [= I bite the magpie – see explanatory note].

In the sense of the mouth or the throatwhistle has chiefly been used in to wet one’s whistle, but it has sometimes occurred in other contexts. For example, in The Coxcombe (circa 1608-10), by the English playwrights Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) and John Fletcher (1579-1625), Dorothie, “the Tinkers Trull”, says to Viola, who is begging the tinker not to hurt her:

(Folio 2, 1679)
Let’s have no pitty [= no crying out for pity], for if you do, here’s that shall cut your whistle.

The verb whet has sometimes been substituted for the earlier wet when followed by one’s whistle. In a letter written from Washington on 7th October 1809, the British diplomat Francis James Jackson (1770-1814) seemed unsure:

A negro servant brought in some glasses of punch and a seed cake. The former, as I had been in conference the whole morning, served very agreeably to wet, or whet, my whistle.

In The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742), the English novelist Henry Fielding (1707-54) used to whet one’s whistle to mean to clear the throat or voice by taking a drink:

(1749 edition)
‘Pray let us hear Mr. Adams’s Relation.’ ‘With all my Heart,’ answered the Justice, ‘and give the Gentleman a Glass to whet his Whistle before he begins.’

This usage stems from the literal meaning of the verb whet, which is to sharpen. The word whet has also been used figuratively, as a verb, to mean to ‘sharpen’ appetite, and, as a noun, in the sense of an appetiser. For example, the following is from a letter written by the rector of Port Royal, Jamaica, a few days after the earthquake of 7th June 1692:

After I had been at Church reading Prayers, (which I did every day since I was Rector of the Place, to keep up some shew of Religion) and was gone to a place hard by the Church, where the Merchants meet, and where the President of the Council was; who came into my Company, and engaged me to take a Glass of Wormwood Wine, as a whet before dinner; he being my very great Friend, I staid with him.

Likewise, the word wet, a verb in to wet one’s whistle, is used as an adjective meaning addicted to, or drinking, alcohol, and as a noun meaning a drink. In Wit and mirth; or, Pills to purge melancholy (1719), a collection of songs by the English author Thomas D’Urfey (circa 1653-1723), The Town-Rakes thus begins:

What Life can compare with the jolly Town Rakes,
When in his full swing of all Pleasure he takes?
At Noon he gets up for a wet and to Dine,
And Wings the swift Hours with Mirth, Musick, and Wine.

Variants of to wet one’s whistle include to wet one’s weasandone’s beard, one’s beak and one’s throat.

Two similar humorous expressions are to moisten, or wet, one’s clay and to wet the other eye, which means to drink one glass after the other.




explanation of Je crocque la pie:

The French expression croquer (la) pie, literally to bite (the) magpie, meant to drink copiously (French pie being pronounced as English pea – and as in cap-a-pie). The verb pier meant to drink, and, from its derivative pioter (to drink copiously), the noun piot meant a drink.

According to what is probably folk etymology, this expression and these words are from the reputation of the magpie for greediness. For example, in Les contes et discovrs d’Evtrapel (1585), the French author Noël du Fail (circa 1520-1591) mentioned, among other shop signs, la Pie-qui-boitthe drinking magpie.

However, the origin is probably an onomatopoeic root pi-, shared for example by Spanish piar, a verb which means (of a bird) to cheep and is also used to mean to drink wine. Indeed, its French equivalent in the former sense is piailler. It is therefore likely that croquer (lapie and other references to the magpie are posterior to the verb pier and arose from a jocular phonetic connexion between pie, the bird’s name, and the conjugated forms of the verb (je pieil pie, etc.).

These French expression and words are now obsolete. But, interestingly, the verb siffler, literally to whistle, still has the figurative sense of to knock (a drink) back, and is therefore similar to the English phrase to wet one’s whistle.

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