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