Whales Etymology

The term “etymology” refers to the study of the origin of words and how they have changed and evolved over the course of history. This reveals important information about the object to which the word refers, since the original names used usually refer to a common trait of the object or subject or to an experience.

Whales have been known to humankind for centuries and have, therefore, been known by a number of terms for a number of reasons. They have continued to astound and impress onlookers by their sheer size and beauty.

Old English (between the years of about 450 and 1100 of our Common Era, or CE) is a West Germanic language, and holds the secrets to the origins of many modern words. The Old English version of “whale” was “hwæl”. In Middle Dutch (around 1100 to 1500 CE), this was represented as wal or walvisc. The Latin origin of this word was “squalus”, which meant “a large fish of the sea”. While a whale is not actually a fish, this may not have been apparent in early times.

Whales have become renowned for their incredible size (although not all whales boast such enormous proportions). Therefore, the word “whale” has also come to be used in phrases that refer to something large. For example, having a whale of a time means that one had an enormously good time.

There are many species of whales that also demonstrate a fascinating origin in terms of the linguistic roots of their names. These include:

The Orca (also known as the Killer Whale)
Orca is a Latin word from the French word “orque”, which loosely refers to sea monsters. In 1846, J. Richardson & J.E. Gray wrote a book called The Zoology of the Voyage of HHS ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’, in which they referred to the Orca as a Killer Whale for the first recorded time.

The Narwhal
This term hails from the mid-17th century, when the Danish and Norwegian word “narvhal” was used, literally meaning “corpse whale”. This was in reference to the very white colour of the Narwhal, which resembles the colour of a corpse in which the blood no longer gives the body its healthy glow.

The Sperm Whale
This whale is so named for the waxy substance in its head that was originally mistaken to be its sperm. Its full name was the Spermaceti Whale. In Medieval Latin, sperma ceti literally means “sperm of large sea animal”.

The Minke Whale
These whales remain one of the most hunted of all these marine mammals. This name is believed to have come from the surname of one of the Norwegian crew members of Svend Foyn’s voyage. Meincke apparently thought that a pod of these whales were Blue Whales. This was extremely humorous for other experienced whalers, and Meincke became synonymous with this incident and these particular whales.

The Beluga Whale
The Russion word “beluga” goes back to the late 16th century and literally means “great white” (since the suffix -uga implies augmentation). This name refers to their ethereal white colouring that makes these whales extra beautiful.

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