The Sun Never Sets On The Wolf Whistle

     Now that I’m world famous, this column may be a bit short, for I must devote myself to my new trade: whistling at women.
     BBC Radio last week broadcast a story about an English construction company that has prohibited its workers from wolf whistling at women. The company, George Wimpey South Wales, also wants all the contractors it works with to ban wolf whistles.
     I listen to the BBC while I work because it’s the only place I can get decent coverage of Zimbabwe and South Wapping.
     The BBC, in the kind of hard-hitting reporting we have come to expect from Her Majesty’s subjects, played a live recording – U.S. radio stations call them “actualities” – of a construction worker whistling at a woman.
     I was disturbed. The English wolf whistle sounded nothing like the American one.
     I was willing to let this go, figuring the Empire is in decline and the poor blighters can’t get up a decent pucker. But then the Beeb closed its story with a quote from the president of George Wimpsey. The man said he had worked in Texas, and that construction workers there never whistle at women.
Well, that’s ridiculous. So when the Beeb closed its story by asking listeners to send comments by email, I immediately sent off this message:
“Wolf whistling at women is a long, ignoble tradition in the United States, at construction sites particularly. Our wolf whistle, however, is slightly different from the English one. It consists of one long whistle on a rising tone, immediately followed by a whistle on a rising and falling tone.
     Robert Kahn, Guilford, Vermont”
     Much to my surprise, about one minute later, the BBC news reader read my message, in toto (as we say at Oxford) to listeners around the world.
Then the BBC shocked me again. After reciting my pellucid description of the wolf whistle, the news reader said, “I can’t imagine what that must sound like. Perhaps we should get Robert Kahn to perform it for us.”
     This was glory indeed. I was basking contentedly when I received another email, this one from David Mazower, assistant editor for BBC daytime programmes:
     “Hi Robert
     Thanks for putting us right on this crucial point. … Fascinating stuff!
     All the best,
     Here were two newsmen hot on the trail of a breaking story – we don’t drink all that gin for nothing – so I shot out an update to the BBC:
     “You are very welcome. I found it hard to believe your news reader did not know our classic wolf whistle. I thought our whistle was universal, like the International Little Kid Song (aka neener neener neener).
     “Your English wolf whistle, frankly, sounds like a muddle. No one in this country would recognize it as a wolf whistle.
     “The classic US wolf whistle, which, I apologize for reminding you, is far superior to yours, is perhaps best written as ‘Wheet-whee-oo.’ I could write it for you in musical notation, if Microsoft Outlook permitted it. Alas, it does not.
     At this point, our electronic intercourse became downright chummy. My old pal David replied:
     “Two nations separated by a common language … and apparently all the more so when it comes to whistling!
     “Robert, we’d love to call you and get you to demonstrate the US version for tonight’s Newshour. … If you have a moment, and are up for it, please let me have your number, and one of my colleagues will call. … You’d be speaking to Owen Bennett Jones.”
     And in a trice, I was speaking with the redoubtable Mr. Jones.
     Here our tale becomes a bit murky.
     Mr. Jones had me whistle at him, then he whistled at me.
     The calls were markedly similar.
     The difference is that the English wolf whistle comes in two parts: a prefatory “whee-oo-wheet” – the generic American attention-getting whistle – followed by the wolf whistle proper – wheet-whee-oo.
     I informed Mr. Jones that American wolf whistlers eschew the three-syllable introduction, which is not an integral part of the wolf whistle.
     Mr. Jones assured me that the introduction is indeed an essential part of the English wolf whistle. He told me that Americans are always abbreviating things.
     I asked if children in England sang the International Little Kid song.
     This stumped him until I sang it for him: Nyah, nyah-nyah, nyah nyah.
     Mr. Jones said of course English children sing the International Little Kid song.
     I told him the truth: that I have heard children in a Maya village in Guatemala sing the International Little Kid song. So the nyah-nyah song appears to be universal, while the wolf whistle is universal, with dialectical variants.
     And there you have it.
     What fascinates me about this is not the musical and anthropological issues, nor that my casual email was read, almost instantly, to millions of listeners around the world. No, what fascinates me is the billions of dollars worth of technology, the orbiting satellites, the underwater fiber optic cables, the Internet service corporations, the telephone linemen, the millions of dollars in wages, training and insurance for the thousands of people in hundreds of companies around the globe, who were needed to bring the world, in these few moments, information of no importance whatsoever.
     That’s what I call progress.

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