The noun wolf whistle denotes a distinctive whistle, with a rising and falling pitch, directed by a man towards a woman to express sexual attraction or admiration.
Wolf-whistling was popularised by one of the most famous characters created by the American animator, director, cartoonist and voice actor Frederick Bean ‘Tex’ Avery (1908-80): this character, the wolf, first appeared in Little Red Walking Hood (1937), in which he wolf-whistles at the fairy-tale young girl and then chases her around town until he gets hit over the head with a hammer.
The wolf reappeared in Red Hot Riding Hood, released on 8th May 1943. This cartoon resets the classic fairy tale in Hollywood: the wolf is now a gentleman about town in a top hat and tails, who goes to a nightclub where he sees Red Hot Riding Hood singing. She is so sexy that the wolf goes ‘bonkers’: he wolf-whistles at her; he pulls out a machine that wolf-whistles for him; he hoots; he slaps the table; his tongue rolls out of his mouth; his eyes pop out of his head; he even starts hitting himself over the head with a hammer as if trying to knock himself out.
In The surprising history of the wolf-whistle (BBC culture, 23rd March 2018), Alex Marshall explains that this cartoon was seen as so sexual that it apparently ran into trouble with censors, and was probably only allowed to be shown because the US military wanted cartoons like it during World War II.
Red Hot Riding Hood would have been seen by almost every US soldier in the war, and by most American boys too. If they hadn’t been wolf-whistling before that moment, they soon were.
The earliest instance of the noun wolf whistle that I have found is from the column Skolsky’s Hollywood, by the American author Sidney Skolsky (1905-83), in The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) of Thursday 26th August 1943; that day, the column was titled Glamour Girls and contained this paragraph:
A glamour girl must go in training like a prizefighter, for she must be in condition when she enters the camera ring. She must look good from any angle, or else she won’t get that wolf whistle from the boys in the balcony when she appears on the screen. And in technicolor yet!
On Sunday 6th February 1944, The Fresno Bee (Fresno, California) published an article about the female equivalent of the wolf whistle:
A group of Fulton Street “scientists” report that at last they have identified and isolated the female version of the wolf whistle—that often heard call used by men of the armed forces when their trail crosses that of the opposite sex.
For certain reasons this group of scientists do not want their names published. It seems unnecessary to add that their research was undertaken for no particular reason that anyone can think of.
They call this female answer to the wolf whistle the slurp. The slurp is defined as “a soft, female noise made with the teeth, tongue and lips which sounds exactly as it is spelled and which sometimes, but not always, means Roger.” (Which, for the benefit of those not up on war parlance via radio drama, means Okeh, message received, proceed according to plan.)
“Like the wolf whistle, the slurp as employed by Fresno girls more often than not indicates admiration or appreciation rather than invitation.” They hastily explain.
“In other words, the slurp may mean no more than ‘cute, isn’t he.’”
They grant that the general public may not know much about the slurp and care less, but explain that at best it is a shy little noise not easily detected unless it is beamed directly at you.
At least one maiden out of a limited acquaintance with those of the younger set admits to slurping on occasion.
“But he has to be very attractive,” she added.
The earliest instance of the verb wolf-whistle that I have found is from an article about the American singer and actress Marie McDonald (1923-65), published in the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, New Mexico) of Sunday 11th March 1945; she explained how she came to be called “by that apt if picturesque name”, The Body:
“I was working in a movie called ‘It Started With Eve’ with Deanna Durbin and Mr. Laughton*,” Marie recalled, “when one day I passed him on the set and he turned around and wolf-whistled, not once, but twice. Then, in fine drugstore corner Americanese, he muttered to an electrician, ‘Hey—pipe the body!’”
* Charles Laughton (1899-1962), English actor, director, producer and screenwriter
However, the earlier existence of the noun wolf-whistling implies that of the verb; the earliest instance of wolf-whistling that I have found is from The Sheboygan Press (Sheboygan, Wisconsin) of Friday 1st September 1944:
Miss Janice Nourse, 17-year Sheboygan school lass, won the thundering applause and the piercing wolf-whistling approval of 1,600 beauty admirers in capacious Sheboygan theater Wednesday night, and grasped the coveted “Miss Sheboygan” title from a field of 15 contestants.
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from the Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania)
Tuesday 2nd November 1943