Date: Sun, 23 Nov 1997 21:43:52 EST


Subject: Re: Seeing the Elephant & W(h)etting your Whistle

FWIW, this from the liner notes to "Debby McClatchy with the Red City

Ramblers", re the first song on this 1983 album, "Seeing the Elephant", by

David Robinson:

"There was no real folk music to come out of the California gold rush.

Most songs were written by professional broadside composers and performed

music-hall style. Traveling goups of singers, dancers and musicians set up

in the canvas soloons of the mining camps or in the more permanent theater

section of San Francisco. The melodies were familiar, to encourage singing

along (in this case, "Boatman Dance") and the words were mainly parodies on

the hardships of a miner's life.

"David Robinson came from New England to San Francisco, where he put

together a review called "Seeing the Elephant." generally ac-

knowledged as the first song written in California dealing with the rush.

Men getting ready for the trail to California met with stories of huge

mammoths waiting on the plains; anyone who had seen the elephant had been

through it all.

On the second item--curiously, coming among the flurry of contributions on why

vs. wye, w(h)oa, etc. (no one mentioned "who", another orthographic WH that I

think even in spelling pronunciations doesn't come out as "hwoo"), Barry


"The part, however, was a very tedious one, as the elephant was obliged

to be on the stage about an hour, and Ned was too fond of the bottle to

remain so long without "whetting his whistle," so he set his wits to wprk to

find a way to carry a weedrop with him."

Whether Barry's or his source's, the occurrence of "whet one's whistle" for

original "wet one's whistle" is a nice innovation. I've always assumed it

derives from a blend of "wet [moisten] one's whistle" and "whet [= sharpen]

one's appetite", but with a boost from the near or (depending on one's

dialect, as we've seen) complete phonological homophony of "wet" and "whet".