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Chris -- 2018-04-11
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.
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.
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…