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What Does "Blow the Whistle" Mean?

By Alicia Sparks
Updated May 23, 2024
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Generally, the idiom “blow the whistle” means someone has disclosed or reported a corrupt or dishonest situation. A person who does this is often referred to as a “whistleblower.” Both sayings are thought to derive from the days when police officers or other law enforcement officials would blow their whistles to signify an illegal activity. The phrases might also have ties to referees, who blow whistles to alert sports players to an illegal move. Whistleblowers might report to the authorities or any person or entity in a position to end the negative situation.

To blow the whistle on a situation means to report it and bring it to light. Usually, the whistleblower reports to the authorities, which are often law enforcement officials. Depending on the situation, though, the authorities might be employers, teachers, or parents. For example, if one student knows another classmate, or group of classmates, is planning to steal the answers to a test, that student might blow the whistle to his teacher. Likewise, if an employee knows a co-worker has been embezzling money from the business, he might blow the whistle on his employer.

Sometimes, whistleblowers blow the whistle to the media. From private citizens who have stumbled across a misuse of public funds to a high-level business executive who knows his company’s owner is committing tax evasion, all manner of people choose to do this. Sometimes, this is because they know the media can shine light on the situation, especially if it is a situation of public interest and the person feels he has no one left to report to. Other times, a person blows the whistle to the media because he wants to make the biggest impact possible, whether for personal or public reasons.

Although blowing the whistle on a corrupt situation is often considered a good thing, the term “whistleblower” sometimes carries a negative connotation. This might be because, along the way, people started using the word to describe not only people who blew the whistle on dishonest situations, but also people who told any kind of private business. Too, some people have come to view whistleblowers as people who want to be viewed as martyrs or “do-gooders.” Even though it is not always the case, people often assume whistleblowers are “tattle tales” or that they are only blowing the whistle to bring praise or attention to themselves.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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