I was sitting quietly beside my wife while she was watching House Rules on TV. I was catching up with the news on my tablet when I heard a kettle start to whistle. Normally I wouldn’t notice the whistle, but for some reason this one did. I looked up and sure enough there was a kettle whistling away on the television screen.
I was puzzled why that particular boiling kettle should have drawn my attention. The kettle scene was part of a TV commercial which had no voiceover. Just a series of vignettes, finishing with a simple text message. So,why was my attention drawn to that kettle? It puzzled me, and I had the feeling that there was something odd with the commercial – something felt out of place.
People who know me will recognise that once my mind grabs hold of a thought, it won’t let go until it feels satisfied. And it wasn’t being satisfied. What was it that made that scene of a whistling kettle that bothered me?
And then it dawned on me. What was a whistling kettle doing in a NZ scene? I haven’t seen one in years. In fact, the last one I recall belonged of my grandmother back in the 1960s. In the winter months it sat on the coal range, replacing the standard electric jug that was used over summer.
I can understand why a whistling kettle was used. Just like the silhouette of a steam locomotive is used on road signs warning of a railway crossing, the kettle is an easily recognised icon.
But do whistling kettles still exist outside TV land? I checked several home appliance stores but could find none. An online search found two shops that had one model each. One shop stocked an electric whistling kettle, the other a whistling kettle that required a gas or electric hob to heat it.
Compared to the hundreds of models of non whistling kettles available, it seems that the whistling variety are about as rare as hen’s teeth. So why are they so common in ads and TV shows?
Most shows broadcast here are foreign (mostly American and British), so perhaps that might be a clue. I searched major U.S. home appliance shops and was totally surprised by the results. In four major retailers, eight of the ten top selling kettles were whistling kettles. What’s more, six required heating over gas or an electric element. It’s not like they don’t have automatic cordless models that are the norm here, they just don’t seem to be very popular by comparison.
Perhaps the cost of electricity and gas is cheaper than in NZ? Consumer tests show that an externally heated kettle takes about twice as long to heat as an electric one and uses more energy. I’m sure there’s a perfectly rational explanation why Americans prefer a whistling kettle over an automatic one, but I just can’t think of one.
I notice that the word “kettle” has almost totally replaced the word “jug” when referring to devices for heating water. In the past, “jug” referred to an upright vessel, whereas “kettle” referred to one with a broad base such as those that were externally heated, or were electric models with a similar profile. I’m not sure why the change has occurred, but it may be due to the demise of local manufacturers. For decades I’ve been heating water for my coffee in an electric jug, and the standard expression we’ve used has been to “boil the jug”. Seems like I need to get use to hearing the expression ” put the kettle on” instead.
In the context of an externally heated kettle, that makes sense as it is put on a source of heat. But the expression doesn’t make sense when where the appliance is not put onto anything – it’s simply switched on. Another expression hungover from another era.
So long as the the change in name to kettle isn’t accompanied by a whistle, I’ll manage.