Strictly in regard to the current events happening in the US involving its president and the Ukrainian call, I'm confused by the use of the term "whistleblower".

The context I've been able to infer from the news and this group is that the US government employes, in the interest of national security, multiple people with the task to listen to all presidential calls, transcript and monitor them.

Now, I know US government can be puzzling sometimes to us non US residents, but I can't imagine a situation where the government spends money on monitoring someone without being kept aware of the information gathered.

So why an official government employee who's properly doing the job he's been hired for, is denigratively called "whistleblower"?

  • 6
    What makes you think 'whistleblower' is a denigrating term?
    – Erik
    Oct 7 '19 at 7:54
  • @Erik it's easy to confuse the whistle for something else, perhaps you're familiar with Flo Rida's whistle song?
    – JJJ
    Oct 7 '19 at 8:20
  • I don't see why this should be closed. If it is based on a faulty premise as Answers below maintain, then that's a good question/answer set. It provides concrete information and enables readers to learn new things.
    – Jontia
    Oct 7 '19 at 8:53
  • Perhaps change the title to "Is "whistleblower" a Derogatory term, and is it being used correctly in the Trump-Ukraine case?" I don't want to do it arbitrarily in case I'm invalidating someone's answers.
    – Jontia
    Oct 7 '19 at 8:55
  • 2
    @Displayname when the US president describes those involved in a whistleblower case spies there seems significant confusion about what the word actually means.
    – Jontia
    Oct 7 '19 at 10:00

I'm not sure how much of a negative connotation "whistleblower" has; that's a question that is probably better asked on English SE. Actually, it turns out there already is a long anwer there on the topic. It concludes that

Today, few people in the United States have any memory of hearing whistleblower used as a pejorative term, and modern dictionaries present it in a broadly sympathetic light.

As far as the Ukraine-related whistleblower, the term is used in no small part because the person in question has claimed and apparently qualifies for protection under section 601 "Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protections" of the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014; this section which sets out protections fairly similar to the better known Whistleblower Protection Act generally applicable to other federal employees, basically prohibiting administrative retaliatory actions against whistleblowers (like demotions etc.) The somewhat misleadingly named Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act is also relevant because it sets out the procedures to use for whistleblowers who blow the whistle on classified issues, although the latter Act doesn't provide any protection for the whistleblower.

My point is that federal law makes widespread use of the term, so it would be hard to avoid in the Ukraine-related matter, even if it has some negative connotation, which I'm not sure it has.

And apparently you've missed the fact that the whistleblower (the first one at least--there are two now) didn't "listen in" on the conversations, but had second-hand knowledge of them.

Furthermore, the act of blowing the whistle, means reporting something that the employee thinks is an illegal practice.

to tell the public or someone in authority about something wrong that you know someone is doing, especially at the place where you work.

  • 2
    In terms of the English language use, I'm not clear if reporting a problem through proper workplace channels is covered by Whistle blowing. The (very long) English SE question uses "going public" frequently, a requirement which reporting up a command chain would not meet.
    – Jontia
    Oct 7 '19 at 9:10
  • The term probably derives from sports, where a referee often blows a whistle when some player commits a foul.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 8 '19 at 3:40

It's a common word, and generally doesn't have a negative connotation. As Fizz pointed out, the laws are written and use the term, but it's been around much longer than the protections in law, which use the term.

From Wikipedia

U.S. civic activist Ralph Nader is said to have coined the phrase, but he in fact put a positive spin on the term[8] in the early 1970s to avoid the negative connotations found in other words such as "informer" and "snitch".[9] However, the origins of the word date back to the 19th century.


  • 1
    That the article you quote says "but he in fact put a positive spin on the term", very much does suggest that there is generally a negative connotation to the word.
    – Jontia
    Oct 7 '19 at 8:51
  • He specifically coined the term to BE a positive term, since other existing words have negative connotations.
    – AHamilton
    Oct 7 '19 at 9:00
  • 1
    I agree, and the EnglishSE answer has lots of good stuff. But that the positive connotation has to be called out is itself an implication that it is not universally understood. That confusion lies at the heart of the question. But I think this answer is helpful in improving understanding.
    – Jontia
    Oct 7 '19 at 9:02
  • No English word is universally understood, to be fair. As an American who now lives in the UK, I've only really recently come to understand just how true that is. It has never been my experience that the word whistleblower has any negative connotations that are widely (even if mistakenly) believed. This is likely just an anomaly specific to the locale of the OP.
    – AHamilton
    Oct 8 '19 at 10:08

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