Skip to content

Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | legalese?, bureaucratese? | “selfless public servant,” “muckraker,” “tattletale,” “rat”)

“Whistleblower,” as we know, is a word, a strikingly common one given its length and clumsiness — although perhaps I am being unfair: a Newsweek story in 1978 described it as “catchy.” “Whistleblowing” is a word; it’s what a whistleblower does. “To whistleblow” is not a word. There must be other examples of “-er” nouns (in the sense of “performer of an action”) without corresponding verbs, but the only one I’ve come up with so far is “slaver.” (As in “white slaver”; “to slave” is not a verb, at least not in that sense. Maybe it’s just short for “enslaver.” Then there’s “porter,” which goes back to the French word for “carry,” or “usher.” Lawyers don’t law, I suppose.)

“Whistleblower” evokes immediately the referee who stops action and assesses penalties with a whistle, but the phrase seems to have arisen among lawyers and bureaucrats, not among athletes. I’m sure you can find citations before 1970, but not many. It was commonly spelled as two words in the old days but soon became one; it’s still hyphenated sometimes.

The word seems to have entered the lexicon for good in 1972, when two books, one titled “Whistle Blowing” (ed. Nader, et al.) and the other “Blowing the Whistle” (Peters and Branch) were published. Both emphasized the importance of employees reporting mismanagement or worse in government agencies or (in Nader’s case) private corporations. Both delved into the risks of such disclosures and concluded that laws had to be created to protect those who revealed information that implicated their colleagues and superiors. In 1974, the Watergate scandal unfolded and the conflict was laid out on the national stage: the whistleblowers (e.g., John Dean) versus the loyalists (e.g., H.R. Haldeman). Nixon’s plumbers’ contempt for the niceties of fair elections still had the power to shock — those were the days — and whistleblower protection became fashionable for a few years. The backlash was swift and powerful, and pretty soon the honchos went back to having things their way, but the brave, lonely figure of the whistleblower has never quite faded.

Like type A personality, this word hasn’t been able to shake its dual character. Sometimes it conveys uncompromising integrity, the fearless sacrifice of one’s ease and comfort for the public good. On the other hand, to many people, it sounds more like “fifth columnist” or “turncoat.” The whistleblower upsets the hierarchy, fingers fellow workers, goes over the boss’s head to report malfeasance. Whistleblowers must break a lot of taboos, which is why we need laws to protect them, and why the laws rarely do much good.

Detractors will assume that whistleblowers are acting dishonestly, ginning up complaints to satisfy a grudge or get revenge. My guess is that this doesn’t happen very often. It’s pretty hard for whistleblowers to escape retribution; the laws protecting them are far from airtight. Perhaps because of that danger, we have a tendency to lionize them: plucky David pitted against a faceless but malign bureaucratic Goliath. Whistleblowers may excite anger and resentment within the organization, but at a distance, or in the abstract, they still look pretty good.


Tags: , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: