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TWTS: The literal and figurative whistleblowers

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Unless you've managed to avoid all sources of media, you've probably heard or read the word "whistleblower" once or twice in the past couple of months.

Whistleblowers have been making headlines a lot lately, both in sports and in politics.

Football fans are likely well aware of the controversy over whistleblowers' calls at the Detroit Lions' game against the Green Bay Packers last week. And, of course, there's the whistleblower's complaint at the center of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

Clearly, we're talking about two different types of whistleblowers here, but it makes sense to put these two situations next to each other.

Ben Zimmer wrote about "whistleblower" in his Wall Street Journal language column in 2013. Zimmer points out that "whistleblower" as a political term comes from sports. It started with the idea that someone would blow a whistle to put a stop to the game or match.

By the 1930s, "whistleblower" came to mean "to snitch" or "to rat on." You'll notice that's a much more negative definition than the one we have today. It wasn't until the 1970s when Ralph Nader managed to give "whistleblower" a more positive connotation.

Nader was concerned about fraud and corruption and was calling on civic-minded people to "blow the whistle" on corporations and the government. He pointed out at the time that it was much easier to turn around "whistleblower" than it was to turn around a word like "rat" or "snitch."

Zimmer wrote his column in 2013, at a time when news outlets were having conversations about "whistleblower" vs. "leaker," particularly in reference to Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.

The Associated Press issued guidance on the matter:

"A whistleblower is a person who exposes wrongdoing. It's not a person who simply asserts that what he has uncovered is illegal or immoral. Whether the actions exposed by Snowden and Manning constitute wrongdoing is hotly contested, so we should not call them whistleblowers on our own at this point."

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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