Thursday, 22 July 2010
Now I know wolf whistling is terribly non-pc but I admit to feeling a little pleased if I receive one – a bit like someone winking at me. A wink is very endearing. I don't know why it should be but it always makes me smile and feel that I have been included – a kind of symbolic hug. (Very important to someone who's always been on the outside looking in – sniff, sniff, sob!)
I say I feel happy if someone wolf-whistles at me but it does rather depend on the whistler. If he's young, fit and good-looking, working on a construction site during his university vacation, I am delighted. However, if he is wearing a beer belly under a stained vest and his jeans reveal more of his backside than is attractive and a fag is hanging from his chapped lips with his bloodshot eyes screwed up a) to keep said fag in place, and b) because he's got a thundering headache from a monumental hangover, I am inclined to be less than elated, particularly if he leers at me and says, 'Orye, darlin'?'
To be brutally honest (and I'm the one facing the cruel truth!) even as a passably not-too-ugly young woman I attracted more whistles from the latter category than the former, probably something to do with 'bringing me down a peg or two' because I've always looked snooty (and sound more so - think Joanna Lumley on speed) Now I think about it, what does that expression mean? What pegs are being referred to? Not clothes pegs, clearly, or tent pegs – perhaps pegs under steps or shelves, or does 'peg' mean 'level' or 'point'? Time to employ my trusty 'Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable' (BDOPAF) which informs me: 'the allusion is to a ship's colours, which used to be raised and lowered by pegs. The higher the colours are raised, the greater the honour, and to take . . .' well, you get the idea. It still doesn't really clarify where the pegs are situated and how they are moved. I imagine a flag mast with a series of holes in the lower third into which sturdy pins may be placed. The pulley to raise the flag can be secured at the appropriate point to fly the colours at the desired height – there, clear as mud!
An earlier explanation refers to King Edgar of Kent who decreed in 975 that drinking vessels in alehouses should be a standard size. This was set at a 'pottle' (four pints). Each pottle was to be divided into eight parts marked by pegs inside the tankard. Tankards were shared between drinkers and it was the ruling that no man should drink more than one peg at a sitting before passing the vessel to the next drinker. This edict presented a challenge to drink more than one peg's worth, thus taking fellow drinkers down a peg or two.
Anyway, back to the wolf whistle. I was wolf-whistled yesterday as I pegged washing on the line. We are not overlooked so I knew it was Barry whistling at me. He doesn't fit either of the above categories though he belonged in the first ranking many years ago. If he had deteriorated into the second we would no longer be associating with each other! I started wondering idly about the phrase 'wolf whistle'. Wolves are not known as siffleurs (don't you just love that name?) being more readily associated with howling, growling, barking, yipping and whining. According to one source they also hiss, but nowhere have I ever read or heard that wolves whistle. Wolf howls can carry for ten miles in perfect weather conditions. Whistles carry further than human speech; Silbo is a whistled language used for centuries by shepherds in the Canaries and can be heard at distances of six miles.
Googling the phrase led me to answers that suggested it developed from slang; a 'wolf' was a man who gave unwanted sexual attention to women. Another idea was that in the 60s it was common to refer to an attractive person as a wolf, in much the same way that women are described as foxy, though I have never heard of a woman being called a wolf. Time to look in BDOPAF again – sadly, this told me what it meant but not its derivation. The Cassell Dictionary of Slang repeated the definition and informed that the phrase has been current since the 1950s, comparing it to a wolf call.
The closest I have come to a derivation is that sailors used whistling as a way of communicating with each other in harbour, though never at sea, in case their whistles should be confused with the boatswain's piped calls. Seeing an attractive woman ashore a sailor would whistle to alert his shipmates.
It's amazing how much time can be spent simply pondering and I'm sure it's an indication that I really haven't enough to occupy my days!