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shameless pleading

Whale

Pavarottis of the sea, in fact.

Dear Word Detective:  I’m just wondering where and when we began to use the word “whale” as a term to mean “to beat someone in rapid fashion” (e.g., “Tommy was whaling on Mike’s face”). — Donnie.

Met many whales?  Didn’t think so.  Vicious, savage creatures, those whales.  Look what they did to that nice Ahab fella.  That’s why I’d never be a missionary.  Call me Ishmael?  Fish-meal’s more like it.  Yeah, I know they’re not really fish, supposedly.  You know what else aren’t really fish?  Canada geese.  But they’re making a heck of a mess on my lawn, strutting around like they own the place, honking in some foreign language.  Canadian, I guess.  Won’t even let me get to the mailbox, and I’m expecting an important prize notification.  I may already be a winner!

But probably not.  Whales are, of course, actually very nice creatures with lovely singing voices.  Our modern English word “whale,” the Moby Dick kind, comes from an ancient  Germanic root, “khwal,” which also produced the modern German word for the critter, “walfisch” (meaning literally “whale-fish”).  The question, of course, is whether this not-fish sort of “whale” has any connection to the verb “to whale,” meaning “beat severely.”

“Whale” meaning “to beat, flog or thrash” first appeared in print in 1790, but, since that appearance was in a glossary of English provincial usage, we can assume that the word was in common usage in England long before that.  “Whale” has also, since the mid-19th century, been used figuratively to mean “to do something continuously and vehemently,” often meaning a verbal attack or a rant about something (“You remember that one that come round a spell ago a whalin’ away about human rights,” 1852).

The one possible connection between the literal “beat or flog” kind of “whale” and the “Thar she blows” leviathan is no reflection on the whale’s noble character.  It is possible that “whale” in the “beat” sense originally meant “to flog with a whalebone whip.”  The “whalebone” in such whips was actually what we now call “baleen,” flexible cartilage from the mouths of certain whale species.

More likely, however, is that “whale” in the “beat up” sense is a form of “wale,” a very old verb rarely seen today.  In Old English, the noun form of “wale” meant “ridge of earth or stone,” but by the 12th century it was also being used to mean “the marks or ridges on the skin left by a lash or rod.”  By the 15th century, the verb “to wale” meant to whip someone hard enough to cause welts or wounds (“O my blessed Saviour, was it not enough that thy sacred body was stripped of thy garments, and waled with bloudy stripes?” Bishop Joseph Hall, 1634).  This meaning of “wale” is so close to the current meaning of “whale” that a connection is almost certain.

The same “wale” as a noun, by the way, is still around in its original meaning of “ridge,” and is commonly used when we speak of “wide-wale corduroy” and the like.  But none of these “wales” have any connection to the country of Wales.  “Wales” was the Anglo-Saxon name for the country, in Old English “Wealas,” which meant “land of the foreigners.”  The Welsh people themselves know their land as Cymru.

3 comments to Whale

  • The Holg

    As we Germans have also learned that whales aren’t fish, we usually call them “Wal” (singular) and “Wale” (plural) these days, rather than “Walfisch(e)”. (But capitalized either way, as all German nouns are.)

  • Marcus

    Just coincidence that ‘weal’ means a similar thing and has a similar spelling?

  • Pericles Nicolaides

    I believe that Wales (Galles in French) refers not to “foreigners” but specifically Gauls, i.e. Celts. For the same reason Celtic Irish is called Gaelic and Celtic Scottish is called Gàidhlig.

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