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

February 8, 2019

‘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:

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Communicating with the distant future

September 11, 2014

It’s sobering to imagine modern English as an archaic dialect – how the language might evolve and how our version(s) of it might appear from a position many generations into the future. That English will change radically in a few centuries or a thousand years is beyond doubt: read a few lines of Old or Middle English and you’ll get an idea of how much.

This presents a problem when communication with people in the far future is an absolute must. Whatever about literature becoming ever more impenetrable, how do we warn future humans about dangerous contaminants that we’ve buried for safekeeping? It’s not enough to isolate these materials now; they may need to be kept isolated for a very long time.

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The green stuff

July 11, 2011

If you’re a regular visitor, you might know that I’ve been writing weekly posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. June was Green English month – that is, the language of the environment and all things eco-friendly – so a few of my recent posts focused on this.

First up, “It will all come out in the greenwash” looks at some of the jargon that has emerged from the green movement, such as greentailing, greenwashing, and eco-bling:

Some companies are unscrupulous about jumping on the green bandwagon in an effort to boost their profits. This has given rise to the term greenwash – formed by analogy with whitewash. Just as whitewash indicates greater concern with appearance than with what lies beneath, and indicates attempts to cover up incriminatory facts, so greenwash refers to superficial activities intended to show concern about the environment and distract from damage being done.

As Kerry Maxwell points out in her BuzzWord article, greenwash has been around since the early 1990s, and its use has spread from advertising contexts to political and personal ones. [more]

In “Have I seen you be -vore?”, I examine the –vore suffix, which comes from French –vore, from Latin –vorous, from vorare (devour, swallow quickly) and with which we’re familiar from words such as herbivore, carnivore, and omnivore. This pattern is greatly extended in scientific terminology, where we see

words like insectivore, piscivore, nectarivore, frugivore (fruit-eater), detritivore, and granivore (eats seeds, not grandmothers), and their adjectival forms: insectivorous, etc.

In these cases, –vore signals the act of eating, and what precedes it indicates what is eaten. But more recent coinages work differently, signalling a shift (or lapse) in how the suffix is used. One of these is locavore, sometimes localvore. Although superficially it has the same form as the traditional –vore words, it does not work quite the same way: it has nothing to do with eating locals. [more]

Out of the red with the green stuff” takes a different approach to green English by noting the colour’s association with money. Green is where the language of the environment and the language of business overlap, and now it seems

the “green economy” is spreading to unexpected quarters: a recent article in Time magazine reports that Sicily’s mafia want in on the act.

The article discusses clean energy and dirty money, phrases that draw on particular metaphors I’ve written about before. Its title mentions the mafia’s “hunger for power”, a metaphor that refers in this instance to renewable energy but is apt in other ways. For one thing, when we talk about money, we often talk metaphorically about food, as Diane Nicholls’s article shows. Also, Italy is where the Slow Food movement, which promotes green living, is said to have begun. [more]

Finally, in “Cut me some slacktivism” I write about different kinds of modern activism, how online life has affected it, and some of the words used to describe different types of involvement. Among these are astroturfing, clicktivism, hacktivism and slacktivism, the last of which

was formed by blending slacker with activism. Whereas activism is all about active engagement, slacktivists prefer to limit their involvement to the bare minimum. . . .

Given the ease of manipulating online information, underhanded tactics are inevitable. One technique that has attracted a lot of attention is astroturfing. This extends a familiar metaphor: since AstroTurf is fake grass, astroturfing is a fake grass roots campaign. It’s a deceptive form of advocacy that appears as a groundswell of passionate opinion, but is often secretly financed by corporations or other well-organised groups with a vested interest in swaying political policy or the public mood. [more]

You can click here to read previous round-ups of my posts for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, or here to go directly to the archive. (The second link is also in the “Elsewhere” box in the top right-hand corner of this blog.)

Comments, whether here or there, are always welcome.