Of Wolf Whistles and Boatswain’s Calls

Here’s another one we all know. Here’s a clip from Howard Hawks’ amazing To Have and Have Not (1944), starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. The film’s most famous line happens at 0:35. Bogey’s reaction is at 0:50.

I’m pretty sure that everyone in the Western world who is of breeding age knows the Wolf Whistle. Usually, this two-tone, sliding “wheet-wheeoo” is directed from randy men toward pretty ladies, though the occasional gender swap occurs. Generally, in terms of the art of foley, it signifies hotness.

But where did it come from?

Sadly, I’ve thus far found very little that links the wolf whistle directly to an origin, but a few ideas are floating around.


A short article at the Examiner says that, “References to whistling at pretty women date back to the writings of Roman comic playwright Plautus. In his Mercator, written around 200 B.C., Plautus refers to a young woman by saying ‘when she passes through the streets all the men would look at her, leer, nod and wink and whistle.'”

You can read Mercator (The Merchant) translated into English at Archive.org or at Tufts.edu or at Google Books, but it looks like the “whistle” reference may have only happened in translation.

The key line happens in Act II. The Google Books version has the line translated to, “The folks would gaze, and stare, and wink, and beckon…” The Tufts version says, “…all people would be staring, gazing, nodding, winking, hissing, twitching, crying out…” The Archive.org version seems to be identical to the Tufts version.

You can read the text in Latin at TheLatinLibrary.com, but sadly, I don’t read Latin.

So, we can safely say that men have been hooting at women for millennia, but as for specifically whistling, the jury is still out.


Wikipedia has an interesting theory about the modern “wheet-wheeoo” format of the Wolf Whistle:

The wolf-whistle originates from the navy General Call made with a boatswain’s pipe. The general call is made on a ship to get the attention of all hands for an announcement. Sailors in harbour would whistle the general call when seeing a pretty woman to draw fellow sailors’ attention to her. It was eventually picked up by passers-by, not knowing the real meaning of the whistle, and passed on. Over time, the precise tones of the general call were flattened somewhat into the wolf whistle common today.[citation needed]

That big, fat [citation needed] at the end means that we probably shouldn’t take this as the concrete truth, but it does seem quite plausible. Landlubbers might not know what a boatswain’s call is when you read it in text, but I can guarantee that, if you’ve ever watched Star Trek, you know the sound:

[mejsaudio src=”http://soundandthefoley.com/files/2013/04/Trek_Boatswain.mp3″]

There are actually many different audio codes made with the boatswain’s whistle, but the one heard in Star Trek is called “piping the side” or “pipe aboard”, which signals that someone important is around. Listening to the pipe aboard tones, it’s easy to see where the first two notes were combined into one glissando, and thus turned into the modern wolf whistle.


Regardless of origins, the wolf whistle can be heard in many places. Tex Avery put it all over the place when he was directing Looney Tunes shorts, such as Red Hot Riding Hood:

(Interestingly, the scene above is directly referenced in The Mask (1994), but the whistling is changed into generic enthusiastic whistling, and is missing the specific wolf whistle pattern.)

In Space Jam (1996), the wolf whistle emerges from the crowd as Lola Bunny appears in the stadium (at 1:04 in this clip).

In The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), the paperboy wolf whistles at Jayne Mansfield. You can see it happen at 0:15 in this clip.

Where else have you heard the wolf whistle? (Or, for that matter, the boatswain’s call?)


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