or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, December 31, 2010

A Whale of a Year

You were expecting some kind of end-of-the-year wrap-up? Expect again!

Today we have a word that poses a question that poses further questions and so on into some sort of infinite regress which I eventually managed to put a stop to.

We start with this awesome thing

which is available on craft-market Etsy and, being charming, was featured on Must Have Cute instead of Regretsy, which is where you find Etsy's misconceived, badly executed, or simply misspelled handicrafts, such as a greeting card which reads "Let Is Snow Let Is Snow Let It Snow" (two typos in nine words--very impressive), but which you can no longer see (on Regretsy, anyway) because its creator is humourless, self-important, and highly litigious, such an attractive combination of characteristics. (I wonder if she'll find this and threaten to sue me for slander. I wonder if she understands that being listed on Regretsy actually leads to more sales, even if those sales are to people who are buying the thing to laugh at it rather than simply enjoy its excellence. I wonder if she understands that such distinctions are irrelevant, because sales are sales and money is money.)

Anyway, narwhal. Wouldn't you think it ought to be "narwhale"? Where do you suppose that "-e" went?

It was never there to begin with. "Narwhal" originally a Scandinavian word, "narhvalr", which is a compound of "na", "corpse", and "hvalr", "whale". (The "corpse" part is from the colour of the animal, which is the same dead bleachy white as a human corpse.) Through the process of metathesis, the "-r-" drifted from the end into the middle of the word and turned it into "narhval", which is clearly the source of "narwhal".

Now, when you are looking into the word "whale", you are going to discover that the German word for this is "Wal", and there is no way you can see that and not think of "walrus", am I right? And what exactly might walruses have to do with whales? Nothing, exactly, except that--and this is so great--there was an Old Norse word for a whale, "hrosshvalr", which became in Old English "horschwael", which is so much like "horse-whale" that the Dutch had the very same idea, and since in their tongue "walvis" meant "whale" and "ros" meant "horse", they jammed the words together (in, it must be noted, a folk-etymological way, since horses never actually enter into the equation) into "walrus", which we eventually adopted, as we did with so many of their oceanic and seafaring words.

Now, when you consider that in English the letters "wh-" at the beginning of a word are, if you enunciate, pronounced "hw-", you might assume that there are lots of English words that used to begin with "hv-", and there are, and "whale" is one of them: in Old English it was "hwael"--all the letters there, but scrambled in a way that, fascinatingly, makes no difference whatever in pronunciation. "Hwael" stems ultimately from an ancient Germanic word, "khwalaz", which seems pretty likely to be related to the Latin word "squalus", which was a large fish.

And that is inevitably going to suggest at least one other English word, and for me it conjured up two, the first of which (perversely, since it not the obvious one) was "squalene", which is a fatty biochemical found in, among other places, human sebum, and I could not for the life of me imagine how this might be related to fish, until I learned that it is also found in shark-liver oil, and there's your connection with "squalus", because a shark is a large fish, is it not?

The other word that "squalus" will call to mind is "squalid", and here the etymology is extremely dubious, because there is no obvious connection between "large fish" and "demoralizing filth", except that Latin "squalare" used to mean "to be filthy: to be covered with a rough scaly layer", and that second part would seem to describe a fish pretty well, but who knows?


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