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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The Irish diminutive suffix -een

January 16, 2019

In A Brilliant Void, a new anthology of vintage Irish science fiction edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018), I saw some examples of a grammatical feature I’ve been meaning to write about: the Irish English suffix –een. Anglicised from Irish –ín /iːn/, it normally signifies littleness or endearment but can also disparage or serve other functions.

Look up –ín in Ó Dónaill’s Irish-English dictionary and you’ll find such diverse examples as an t-éinín bíogach ‘the chirpy little bird’, an choisín chomair ‘the neat little foot’, an bheainín ghleoite ‘the charming little woman’, an méirín púca ‘the foxglove’, and an paidrín páirteach ‘the family rosary’.

The –ín suffix is so productive in Irish, and Irish so influences the traditional dialects of English in Ireland, that it’s no surprise –een became established in vernacular Irish English, especially in the west. You probably know it if you’re at all familiar with Irish speech or culture; even if not, you may recognise some of the examples below.

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A mystery letter among the leaves

November 3, 2018

Walking clears my head. Especially here, on the eastern lip of the Atlantic, the fresh winds gusting in over Galway Bay clear the cobwebs of editing and writing from my mind. When I need a break from work – from books, paragraphs, sentences, words, letters – I walk.

Sometimes, though, the letters follow me. This one gave me a proper surprise, almost glowing in the wet autumn ground:

Photo of about 1 square metre of wet footpath, with a white letter Q stencilled on the ground, surrounded by a dozen or so colourful autumn leaves.

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Hyphenating my little ass-car

January 16, 2018

There’s an xkcd cartoon popular among copy-editors because it combines fussiness over hyphens with gently risqué humour:

Language Log, meeting language lovers’ most niche desires and then some, has a bibliography of suffixal –ass as an intensive modifier. In this vein, you’d expect the hyphen in little ass car to go between the first two words unless you were being seedy, or xkcdy. But there’s an exception, and it’s not rude at all.

Irish author Pádraic Ó Conaire, in his short story collection Field and Fair (Mercier Press, 1966; tr. Cormac Breathnach), refers several times to his ass-car, by which he means his donkey and cart. One story, about how the author came to befriend the donkey, is titled ‘My Little Black Ass’. It’s hard to read that now and not find alternative meanings rubbing up against the intended one.

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Reading coincidences: geese edition

August 5, 2017

Konrad Lorenz’s books always have wonderful anecdotes about animals, and On Aggression (1963, tr. Marjorie Latzke) is no exception. One chapter describes habit formation in geese, a greylag goose named Martina in particular, whom Lorenz had reared and who had imprinted on him. Lorenz writes:

University Paperback book cover on Konrad Lorenz's 'On Aggression', featuring a large b&w illustration of a snarling tiger's headIn her earliest childhood, Martina had acquired a fixed habit: when she was about a week old I decided to let her walk upstairs to my bedroom instead of carrying her up, as until then had been my custom. Greylag geese resent being touched and it frightens them, so it is better to spare them this indignity if possible.

Pleased by this information, and by how it was phrased, I tweeted it. Later, after sharing another excerpt on geese behaviour, I added a hashtag:

And there the idea would have remained, except that the next book I picked up, Molly Keane’s Loving and Giving, had its own geese tips.

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The Old Ways and the old words

June 16, 2016

Find beauty; be still. —W.H. Murray

On a visit to Galway City Library last week I happened upon Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Hamish Hamilton, 2012), and promptly whisked it from the shelf. I had read Macfarlane’s The Wild Places a few months earlier and it’s already a highlight of my reading year.

Macfarlane is an English academic and author who writes about nature, travel, landscape and literature and how one influences or nourishes the other. The Old Ways takes pathways as its primary motif: the tracks we find and make across land and sea and how they signify and affect our relationship to place.

A few language-related excerpts follow. First, an entertaining note on the polyglottism of George Borrow, ‘the most charismatic of modern walker-writers’, who Macfarlane says ‘inspired the surge in path-following and old-way romance that occurred in mid-nineteenth-century Europe and America’:

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Afterlives of words and birds

October 22, 2015

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Words change, and that’s OK looks at a new series by Macmillan on word use and language change, and concludes that – despite what language cranks would have you believe – etymology is not the boss of meaning:

This month Macmillan Dictionary introduced its Real Vocabulary series, which assesses word use based on the evidence of usage rather than myth, hearsay, and pet preference. In a video about awesome, for example, Scott Thornbury points to the Dictionary’s secondary meaning  for the word, which defines it as ‘extremely good’, labels it ‘informal’, and says it is ‘used mainly by young people’. This supplies enough information and context to understand the word’s recent extension, and is infinitely more helpful than complaining about it or rejecting it as wrong.

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john tenniel engraving of dodo, alice's adventures in wonderland by lewis carrollIn The dodo is dead, long live the dodo, I reflect on dodo the word and dodo the bird, now sadly extinct but with an afterlife of sorts in literature (such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – a line from which gave this blog its name) and in expressions like dead as a dodo:

The dodo seems to have got its name from either Portuguese doudo ‘foolish, simple’ or Dutch dodoor ‘sluggard’; alternatively it may be onomatopoeic, mimicking the bird’s call (PDF). In any case, from the late 19thC the word was applied to people thought to be stupid or behaving stupidly: F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a letter about someone who ‘had been a dodo’ about something. But it’s the phrase dead as a dodo that resonates most strongly nowadays, and serves also as a reminder of a unique creature now lost.

Older posts can be read at my Macmillan Dictionary archive.