Is ‘corpse whale’ the real etymology of ‘narwhal’?

‘We know more about the rings of Saturn than we know about the narwhal,’ writes Barry Lopez in Arctic Dreams. This ignorance extends to its etymology. Wondering why the animal remains ‘so obscure and uncelebrated’, Lopez believes that the answer lies partly with ‘a regrettable connotation of death in the animal’s name’:

The pallid color of the narwhal’s skin has been likened to that of a drowned human corpse, and it is widely thought that its name came from the Old Norse for “corpse” and “whale,” nár + hvalr. A medieval belief that the narwhal’s flesh was poisonous has been offered in support of this interpretation, as well as the belief that its “horn” was proof at that time against being poisoned.

This is certainly the prevailing etymology. Look up narwhal in most major dictionaries that offer one – American Heritage, Oxford, Merriam-Webster, the Online Etymology Dictionary – and you’ll see the ‘corpse whale’ derivation presented more or less definitively, with a ‘probably’ or two included as insurance.

Lopez shares a different possibility:

W. P. Lehmann, a professor of German languages, believes the association with death is a linguistic accident. The Old Norse nárhvalr (whence the English narwhal, the French narval, the German Narwal, etc.), he says, was a vernacular play on the word nahvalr—the way high-bred corn is used in place of hybrid corn, or sparrowgrass is used for asparagus. According to Lehmann, nahvalr is an earlier, West Norse term meaning a “whale distinguished by a long, narrow projection” (the tusk).

Cover of Barry Lopez's book Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. The title is in large capital letters on the top right. The illustration encompassing the whole cover shows a large iceberg close up, with water dripping off it, and many seabirds flying near its base at the surface of the dark water. Another iceberg floats in the distance. The sky is muted grey, pink and blue.In other words, Lopez believes, per Winfred Lehmann (obituary and CV here), that the commonly accepted etymology of narwhal is the result of a folk etymology in Old Norse.

(‘Corpse whale’ also superficially resembles a kenning, to my mind.)

He continues:

Some, nevertheless, still call the narwhal “the corpse whale,” and the unfounded belief that it is a cause of human death, or an omen or symbol to be associated with human death, remains intact to this day in some quarters. Animals are often fixed like this in history, bearing an unwarranted association derived from notions or surmise having no connection at all with their real life.

Not all dictionaries adhere to the ‘corpse whale’ etymology. The OED is more circumspect. Dating its first appearance in English to 1650, in Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (2nd ed.) (‘Those long hornes preserved as precious rarities in many places, are but the teeth of Narhwhales’), it supplies a couple of speculative origin stories:

Probably < Danish narhval, cognate with Norwegian narkval , Swedish narval (1754), and further cognate with Old Icelandic náhvalr < a first element of uncertain origin (perhaps < nár corpse: see need n., with reference to the colour of the animal’s skin; or perhaps shortened < nál needle n., with reference to the straight tusk) + hvalr whale n.; the epenthetic -r- in the Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish forms has not been satisfactorily explained (see note below). Compare Middle French nahual (1598; French †narhual (1647), †narwal (1676), narval (1723)), Spanish narval (1706), Italian narvalo (1745), Dutch narwal (1769), German Narwal (18th cent.), all ultimately borrowings from Scandinavian.

Alternative etymologies connect the first element with the Germanic base of either nase n. or narrow adj.; both of these suggestions assume that forms with -r- are primary, and that forms without -r- (the earliest attested forms) are alterations by folk etymology, after Old Icelandic nár corpse.

Returning to Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez says scientists can speak with precision only about the physical creature, ‘not the ecology or behavior of this social and gregarious small whale’. The book was published in 1986, and we’ve learned more about narwhals since, but their forbidding habitat means their obscurity ‘is not easily breeched by science’. Their population trend, for one thing, is unknown.

Yet Lopez rustles up two dozen pages of material about narwhals, all of it beautifully observed, alongside similar explorations of polar bears, musk oxen, northern landscapes and their ice and light and the creatures (including humans) that dwell in or explore them. If that appeals, I highly recommend his book. Given the current climate breakdown, Lopez’s ‘celebration of the polar landscape’, as Robert Macfarlane put it, ‘might well turn into its elegy’.


Illustration from the 1920 book British Mammals. On a grey-pink-blue background, a plump white beluga whale swims from left to right. Below it, a narwhal swims from right to left. It is white underneath, with a speckled grey top, dark fins and tail, and a pale brown sharp spiral tusk.

Beluga whale (labelled ‘White Whale’) and narwhal in ‘British Mammals’ (1920) by Archibald Thorburn


10 Responses to Is ‘corpse whale’ the real etymology of ‘narwhal’?

  1. David L. Gold says:

    Just one small but important correction:

    “The OED [dates] its first appearance in English to 1650 […].”

    The suggested wording is now “earliest-known use” rather than ‘”first use,” first appearance,” and so on in order that the public not think that such dates are necessarily the dates of earliest use, which are in fact almost always impossible to ascertain.

    Thus, as you say regarding a different matter, “insurance.”

    Details here (the article is viewable and downloadable free of charge):

    Gold, David L. 2005. “An Aspect of Lexicography Still Not Fully Professionalized: The Search for Antedatings and Postdatings (With Examples Mostly from English and Some from Other Languages). Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses. No. 18. Pp. 25-69 [].

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for the link; I’ll read your paper later. My suggested wording, for what it’s worth, is that you call it a ‘suggestion’ rather than a ‘correction’, since what I wrote was not incorrect.

  2. Roger Hill says:

    Inuit of Canada’s Eastern Arctic and Greenland knew of the narwhal.
    I just now asked a biologist who did field research in the Arctic what the Inuktituk word(s) for narwhal might be. He said (one) Inuktituk word for narwhal is QERNERTAQ, which he said means “black whale”. That would be in contrast with BELUGA, for beluga whale, in which the element is Russian for white or for a blankish colour. (As for the Inuktituk for beluga — sorry, I forgot to ask.) I think belugas were/are more common than the narwhal and have a wider range. I saw plenty of belugas dragged ashore one day, most of the people of a nearby village were down on the beach for the slaughter. Elsewhere, I only once saw a narwhal, a calf whose mother had been killed. The calf was shipped out to an aquarium in NYC. I was told just now that it survived the journey but died in New York. Canada Post long ago had two different five cent stamps that showed narwhals; if interested, one might check the web for the images. And (psst) I’ve a narwhal tusk on the wall behind me, a nice one (not to tell Animal Welfare).

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for sharing that. Most of the regional terms used in the book are from the Inuktitut dialects, but I don’t think qernertaq features. Lopez, I should add, addresses in an endnote the issue over using Eskimo as opposed to more specific, and less problematic, alternatives.

      Narwhals and belugas, it turns out, are the only two members of the family Monodontidae. Lopez writes:

      In contrast to the apparently coastally-adapted belukha, biologists believe the narwhal is a pelagic or open-ocean species, that it is more ice-adapted, and that it winters farther to the north.

  3. not about the word, but the animal’s behavior – the tusk is used in catching fish

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, among other things, probably. See the link in the post’s penultimate paragraph.

      • Roger Hill says:

        David Attenborough’s online video “Natural Curiosities — A Curious Twist” refers to the twisty look of the narwhal’s tusk or tooth. DA calls it a /tooth/ because of its dentin (dentine) content. (Does that mean it is not ivory?) Its /twist/ reduces drag. DA points out that while the male has the tusky tooth, the female has none.. If the male narwhal uses its tusky tooth or toothy tusk to spear fish, he asks how does the fish get from the spear’s tip down to where the animal can ingest. And the female needs equally to eat, so how? He goes over these items, and others.

        • Stan Carey says:

          If that’s what Attenborough said, he oversimplified: occasionally, female narwhals do have a tusk (or even two, in one reported case in Germany in the 17thC). In the Middle Ages, its association with unicorns meant the tusk, or bits thereof, sold for twenty times their weight in gold.

  4. Roger Hill says:

    i simplified. I’m not Attenborough.

  5. […] is an alternative theory about the name, however, that “narhvalr” is actually a play on words, the original […]

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