Issue 110, page 1
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No, this is not going to be about Mike's homeland, this is about whales with an H. Mike insists that his country is called Cymru, anyway, and that Wales comes from an Old English word meaning "foreign". (Da noive a doze guys!)
During the recent TOWFI hiatus, the pair of us took a boat from Monterey, California to go whale-watching. This is a little like bird-watching but one seldom has to look upwards. What a delightful experience. It is at this time of year that the California Gray Whales migrate and this is what we were led to expect we would see. Surprisingly, we didn't see even one. Even more surprisingly, we saw several humpback- and a even a few blue-whales. Our naturalist guide was beside herself with glee.
As you may imagine, when we got home we did a little research on whale words. Have you read Moby-Dick lately? Did you realize that it didn't originally begin with the words "Call me Ishmael"? In fact, it's the only book we've read which begins with an etymological essay, but this chapter has been removed from most modern editions. Fortunately, the original version is available on the web.
-Moby-Dick, or The Whale, Herman Melville (1851)
Whales are distinguished from "toothed whales" such as dolphins and porpoises by having whalebone instead of teeth. This is not actually bone but is an elastic, horny substance through which whales filter their food. It was used as stiffening in dresses and corsets and, occasionally, was used to beat errant children. Hence the verb to whale [on] something or someone.
The harpoon which was used by whalers is a barbed spear. English took it from French harpon, replacing the nasalized -on ending with -oon just as happened with cartoon and bassoon. The French word comes from harpe "dog's claw", referring to the barbs, and it is related to the Greek harpe "sickle, scimitar".
Blue-whales really are bluish and gray-whales are gray but in looking up the names of various species of whales, we encountered several surprises. Risso's dolphin was named after a naturalist called Risso but the right whale, wasn't named for a Mr. Right. It was simply the "right" whale to kill. That, incidentally, is why there are so few of them left. Also, the sperm-whale is so-called because of the spermaceti found in its head. What is "spermaceti" you ask? Well, it's described as a "soft, white, scaly substance" and the word itself is of Latinate derivation, from sperm ("sperm") + cetus ("whale"). It was named, as the OED delicately puts it, "through an erroneous opinion as to the nature of the substance". At one time it was used in medicinal preparations and was called often parmaceti, presumably through confusion with pharmaceutical.
Blubber, the fat of the whale, was once much sought after. Once rendered it became whale-oil, a high grade of lamp oil. In its earliest use, blubber means "sea foam", though, not whale-fat. To blubber, of course, means to weep noisily, making a "blub, blub" sound. This is reminiscent of the dialect verb to lob which refers to the sound made by boiling stew or porridge (hence the name of the sailors' dish lobscouse). It is quite possible that blubber is related to bubble as there is a Scottish expression to bubble an’ greit meaning "to blubber and weep". It is uncertain which came first, the noun or the verb.
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