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#1 2020-06-28 14:00:04

David Bird
Eggcornista
From: Montréal, QC
Registered: 2009-07-28
Posts: 1654

Whistling in the graveyard

Today’s NYT has an interesting turn of phrase that is at once puzzling and apposite. At issue is the distinction between asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic spread of the Covid-19 virus.

To some doctors, the focus on these arcane distinctions felt like whistling in the graveyard.
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/27/worl … matic.html

Other language sites have mentioned the oddity of whistling in the graveyard, suggesting it to be a blended idiom, mixing ‘whistling past the graveyard’ and ‘whistling in the dark’. Whistling past the graveyard, or averting your eyes from difficult truths or unpleasant possible outcomes, would not be appropriate in this context. Nor would whistling in the dark, maintaining a brave front in uncertain circumstances, which is not far off in meaning, but does at least the convey the idea of lack of certainty. The urgent context suggests that ‘whistling in the graveyard’ here conveys the idea of meaningless chatter like the wind in dry grass, with the connotation that the dry grass has sprouted among the tombstones. Though the repurposing of the phrase was momentarily confusing, I like it.

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#2 2020-07-06 22:09:18

kem
Eggcornista
From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2761

Re: Whistling in the graveyard

Both “whistling in the graveyard” and “whistling past the graveyard” seem to have currency, as this ngram shows. Possibly they are just variations on the same idiom.

To me, “whistling past the graveyard” means putting up a bold front when one is actually afraid. “Whistling in the dark” means much the same thing.” “Whistling in the dark” appears to be the older idiom, so it is possible that the shift began by someone first substituting “graveyard” for dark and then a subsequent speaker changing “in” to “past.”


Hatching new language, one eggcorn at a time.

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#3 2020-07-08 12:53:01

Peter Forster
Eggcornista
From: UK
Registered: 2006-09-06
Posts: 1079

Re: Whistling in the graveyard

I like it too, but for me it has other associations completely. As a youth I worked for a short time as a gravedigger, with exceptionally cheerful older blokes. Two or three graves might be dug at the same time and much whistling, singing, ribaldry and banter emerged , as well as soil, from those holes in the ground. If no bosses were about a transistor radio might appear. The only song I recall was, “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven But Nobody Wants To Die”, which I could have sworn was sung by The Nolans, a bunch of Irish sisters who enjoyed enormous popularity for some reason.
I could also have sworn this took place in 1967 too, but I’ve just checked and it seems that song was released in 1968, and was by a group of Scottish sisters called The Karlins. I’m delighted to be reminded of those summer days delving into the earth but I’m not sure whether this post has lost or gained me a year and this begins to trouble me…

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#4 2020-07-22 20:11:16

kem
Eggcornista
From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2761

Re: Whistling in the graveyard

Life is easier, Peter, if you you live it in temporal order.


Hatching new language, one eggcorn at a time.

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#5 2020-07-23 09:17:42

David Bird
Eggcornista
From: Montréal, QC
Registered: 2009-07-28
Posts: 1654

Re: Whistling in the graveyard

Kem, do you think ‘whistling in the graveyard’ makes sense in the context described?
Peter, I liked your version of whistling in the graveyard, to a transistor radio as you dig.

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#6 2020-07-30 14:18:18

kem
Eggcornista
From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2761

Re: Whistling in the graveyard

It is possible that the NYT quote was not invoking the idiom at all. They may have coined their own idiom, with “whistling” meaning “doing something trivial” and “graveyard” meaning “in a serious and deadly situation.” Achieving thereby the meaning that you (David) suggested at the end of your initial post. Sometimes just the sound of an establish idiom can serve as a leader for a bolt of new meaning.

We’ve discussed, here and there, several repurposed idioms on this Forum. One of my favs is using “begs the question” to mean “leads to the question.” I hear it more often than I hear the “correct: (i.e., historically employed) version. Would be fun to compile a list of these.


Hatching new language, one eggcorn at a time.

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