On the news here in France the other day, there was footage of President François Hollande visiting a small town, where he was greeted by whistles from the crowd. To an American like me, the whistling instinctively felt like a good thing. I’m sure if the footage were shown in the U.S., it would seem like Hollande was a big hit in that town. But it’s actually the opposite; in France, and in the rest of Europe as well, whistling is a sign of derision and disapproval – basically the equivalent of our booing.
But it isn’t so simple. Disapproving French audience members also make a noise like booing, hue (pronounced kind of like a deep-voiced “ooh”). And as if that wasn’t enough to confuse you, because of exposure to American culture in movies, TV, and music, sometimes you just might hear whistles in a positive way at concerts and such.
But what about us Americans – and, apparently, Anglophones in general? Why do we “boo” instead of whistle? Where did booing come from, and when exactly did we start doing it?
It turns out this isn’t a particularly easy topic to research. My unabridged American Heritage Dictionary doesn’t go into detail. Online, a single article, published on Slate.com in 2006, seems to be the only major source of information about it. The article has even been copied verbatim on a number of other sites, including Wikipedia! It doesn’t say that Anglophones ever whistled in disapproval. It does, however, suggest that we’ve been booing – or making some version of that sound – for a really long time.
The first recorded use of “boo” to show disapproval was only in the 19th century. And that was in England; we Americans probably didn’t really start booing en masse until around 1910, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
So what did angry English-speaking audiences say before “boo”? Earlier recorded forms of audience outrage in English date to the 13th century, when the disgruntled public made a sound more like “hoot”. (Interestingly, when you think of the French influence on English, “hoot” is very similar to hue.)
If you’re familiar with the expression “boo, hiss”, you might be wondering when crowds started doing the latter. Hissing seems to have existed since ancient Roman times. And of course, much, much earlier than that if you count cats and snakes….
Was that last line a bad joke? If you think so, if I’d been performing this instead of writing it, how would you have reacted – with a boo, a hiss, or a whistle?