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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Folk etymology: from hiccup to hiccough

July 2, 2013

Folk etymology is when a word or phrase is changed – phonetically, orthographically, or both – to better fit a mistaken idea about its origin. It’s why some folk call a hiccup a hiccoughhic-cough may seem more plausible or comprehensible. The original impulse, says Arnold Zwicky, is “to find meaningful parts in otherwise unparsable expressions”.

Asparagus officinalis, also

Asparagus officinalis, also “sparrow grass”

So asparagus is sometimes written as sparrow grass, much as chaise longuechaise lounge and coleslawcoldslaw (which also count as eggcorns – sort of distributively limited folk etymologies). Many remain incorrect or restricted to small groups, but some become standard: penthouse came from pentis, lapwing from lappewinke, and hangnail is a modified Old English agnail.

Most people would probably assume that shamefaced comes from “shame-faced”, but the word was once shamefast, literally “restrained by shame” (fast as in “held firm”). The idea of shame manifesting in a person’s face motivated and sustained the alteration.

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