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As clean as what?

In anticipation of the post on clean, I decided to say something about the idioms in which clean figures prominently, but chose only those which have the structure as clean as. This means that I am not going to make a clean breast of my errors, wipe the plate clean, or engage in other theatricals. My aim is much more modest: I want to call our readers’ attention to the unimaginably high number of similes of the as…as type in English. In 1918, T. Hilding Svartengren, a Swedish researcher, defended a dissertation with the title Intensifying Similes in English. The text of the dissertation appeared in Lund: a very thick and most useful book. Specialists know and use it, but references to it are rare. Svartengren excerpted similes from the OED and Joseph Wright’s The English Dialect Dictionary. He also cited some explanations from Notes and Queries and a few other sources, but the origin of the similes did not concern him too much. The material is inexhaustible. My database of English phrases (however, I was interested only in the literature on etymology) hardly amounts to one thousandth of Svartengren’s corpus; yet it contains many similes not featured even in his work.

From Modern English Svartengren listed clean as a baby’s leg, clean as new preen, clean as print, clean as wheat, clean as a leek, clean as carrot, clean as a mackerel (or smelt), clean as a (new) penny, clean as a new pin, clean as a razor, clean as a pick, clean as a pink, and clean as a whistle. Obviously, some such phrases are occasional coinages (for instance, clean as a baby’s leg), and one can come across many more such in books (I have recently read the pronouncement of an old woman in a Russian story: “I was sitting there, clean as a doctor”). Some others have or had currency only in a limited area, but the ones in bold seem to be known widely, and Svartengren devoted considerable space to them. On the Internet, clean as a whistle has also attracted a good deal of attention. Below, I will only refer to the explanations that turned up in my reading (that is, why whistle, etc.).

In general, baby's legs are not always clean.
In general, baby’s legs are not always clean.

Svartengren’s book is a model of careful lexicography, but I did not find clean as a clock there. This case is instructive because it shows the difficulties of accounting for the comparandum. I am quoting from Notes and Queries, 5th series/I, 1874, p. 454: “As clean as a clock—A common phrase in Yorkshire, referring to the shining and clean-looking black-beetles (always called clocks in the North ), which are to be found under every piece of cow-dung which has been dropped a few hours.” We can probably assume that the explanation is correct, and it is easy to imagine what elaborate hypotheses etymologists ignorant of Yorkshire speech and the habits of black beetles would have offered for the origin of the idiom. The same questions should be and have been asked about pink (clean as a pink) and especially whistle: why are those particularly clean?

Clean as a clock.

For instance, it has been suggested that pink refers not to the flower but to the scarlet coats of foxhunters.  But knowledgeable people refuted this idea: “…the generality of hunting men did not wear pink, but green, less than a hundred years ago [written in 1883]; indeed I have heard old-fashioned sportsmen declare that pink covered more cowards in the hunting fields than any other colour.” The author of the note voted for pink “flower,” which is “certainly as clean and fresh a looking flower as can well be met with.” But pink also designates the minnow. “As clean as this very common but very elegant fish would not form a bad simile.” It probably would not.

And now back to whistleblowers and their tools. “…if any flue, or other extraneous matter, gets into the narrow mouthpiece, the instrument becomes dumb. … But to this there is the obvious objection that the proverb applies to the act of cutting: he cut it through as clean as a whistle.”  So the following should be taken into consideration: “If a strong and rapid cut is made with a sword, it will produce a whistling noise…” One is encouraged to heed the master’s advice: “Let me hear your blade whistle.” A clean cut is also said to be a common expression. Knowing nothing about swords except what I have read about them in medieval books and seen in museums, I find this etymology far-fetched. According to still another suggestion, clean in this simile means “clear”: “No sound is more clear than that of a whistle…. But if a man speaks of cutting anything off with perfect smoothness and evenness, he would say he has cut it off clear or sheer, or clean, with equal readiness, and he would probably add the words ‘as a whistle’ to one phrase quite as soon as to the other, without any great amount of reflection as to the congruity of his speech.”

A third suggestion has often been repeated. Allegedly, clean in our simile means “empty.” Thus, “when whale ships arrive in port after an unsuccessful fishing, they are reported as clean—they have brought no oil; they are empty.” More examples of clean “empty” follow, and the Scotch equivalent as toom’s a whistle, with toom meaning “empty,” is given. The writer was immediately rebuffed by a man from Darlington who pointed out  in a rather aggressive tone that, although both toom and clean do mean “empty,” toom conveys a much more complete idea of emptiness than clean. So what? The laws of polemic never change. People are eager to show off and refer to irrelevant facts, only to demonstrate their sham superiority (in this case: “I am afraid that W. M. has still a good deal to learn of the nuances of the Scotch language”). But couldn’t whistle in the phrase under consideration be a mistake for whittle or whittal, or wittel “a butcher’s knife”?  “Proverbs are often corrupted.” They certainy are (what isn’t?).

An ideal whistle blower.
An ideal whistle blower.

The next note is especially revealing. “Any one who has witnessed the manufacture of a rustic whistle can be at no loss for the origin of this saying. A piece of young ash about four inches long and the thickness of a finger is hammered all over with the handle of a knife until the bark is disengaged from the wood and capable of being drawn off. A notch and a cut of [or?] two having been made in the stick, the cuticle is replaced and the instrument complete. When stripped of its covering, the dead wood with its colourless sap presents the cleanest appearance imaginable—the very acme of cleanness…. As clean as clean could not more effectually express the purity of condition than as clean as a whistle.”

The contributors to the discussion wrote letters to Notes and Queries in 1867 and 1868. The chronology deserves mention because the people who are curious about phrase origins routinely consult the most recent available books that tend to dispense with quoting their sources, except for other reference books (Brewer and others). As a result, etymology has become almost completely anonymous. But we can see that the answer requires strenuous efforts of many “non-anonymous” people. It was not my ambition to announce the derivation of the phrases I have discussed here, but only to provide some food for thought, as the saying goes. However, I think the Yorkshire man who touched on the simile clean as a clock did put his finger on it, even if in this case it was only a dung beetle.

Image credits: (1) Baby legs by Adina Voicu, Public Domain via Pixabay.  (2) Beetle by Zdeněk Chalupský, Public Domain via Pixabay (3) Clock by obpia30, Public Domain via Pixabay (4) Minneapolis Traffic Officer by Calebrw, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Featured image credit: Dishes and sink by Unsplash, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Jules F Levin

    Clean as a baby’s leg may be only “occasional”, but the expression I heard in my Midwest childhood was well-known: clean as a Dutch baby’s ass. Perhaps Dutch here means German, as in 19th C. American usage.

  2. Kari McBride

    Wit is an important feature of many of these phrases. The comparisons are unexpected and would surely have provoked laughter in their early articulations. That in turn would have encouraged their repetition, ultimately turning such similes into the cliches they are today, dead metaphors whose meaning is forgotten.

    Taking humor into account makes it possible that the whistle in question is primarily a sound, not a slice, though the two concepts are entwined, as you have shown. Human whistles, particularly those meant to call dogs or signal others at a distance, are focused, clear, “clean” tones; penny whistles, a fortiori. Their sound “cuts” through any ambient noise. Though the juxtaposition of sound with the concept of cleanliness is (or was once, in any case) surprising and thus amusing, it doesn’t require a great mental leap to make the connection and get the joke.

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