Enjoying the Etymology of Whales
Takeda Science Foundation
known as an edible substance, has been made from skin, bones and sinews of cattle,
pigs and sperm whales. Lately, use of cattle products has been refrained in the
wake of the mad cow disease. Further, using whales as main sources has become
difficult because of the limited supply of whale products due to the international
dispute of whaling in recent years. This represents one stage in which the world
undergoes a drastic change.
The origin of the English
word whale is found in the fact that the whale had been called *hwala- or *hwalis
in the Germanic protolanguage, from which English had been derived. The fact that
the Germanic race had a word denoting the whale is indicative of the position
in which they were in the environment to encounter with whales in ancient times.
The original inhabitation area of the Germanic people ranged from what are now
northern Germany to Eastern Europe. Where had been their meeting point with whales?
Or it might have been a vague name to call any large animals living in the sea.
Because the protolanguage
of whales was *hwala-, or *hwalis (the h at the head of the word was silent frictional
sound [k]), hwal came into existence in the Old English (1150 or before) and turned
into whale in the Middle English (1150-1500). There had also been a word whall
in the 14th and 15th centuries, which susbsequently went out of use.
From the same protolanguage
hwal and walfisc (fisc means fish) were evolved in the Old Highland German (750-1050),
which nowadays has become Walfisch in German.
word baleine in French did not originate from the Germanic line. Almost all the
European languages spoken today have evolved from the Indo-European protolanguage
(born before 3000-2000 B.C.), which also includes Sanskrit in India. The Germanic
protolanguage had been one of this Indo-European group.
In face of this changing
situation, the anti-whaling bloc is criticizing Japan for buying the votes of
developing countries in exchange for its Official Development Aid (ODA). But Japan
is now extending ODA to more than 150 countries, among them being anti-whaling
countries, such as India, Brazil, Mexico and Kenya. The reason for the increase
in the number of supporting countries for the cause of Japan is that Japan's position
based on scientific evidence has been accepted internationally.
(Note) The protolanguage is an assumed form of word type, and
it has been a widely accepted practice to add the mark * at the head of the word
to distinguish it from verifiable languages. The term "Indo-European"
is abbreviated to IE hereinafter.
From *bhel-, and *bhel-
(meaning shining and white) of the IE protolanguage developed phalaina in Greek,
and blaena, or blena
in Latin. This was probably because people in olden times were amazed at the shining
figure of a giant whale emerged on the surface of the sea in full sun light. This
might have been the whale in the Mediterranean. The French word baleine comes
Greek and Latin have another
name for whales. *Qet- (meaning hole in the ground for dwelling, living space
or living room) in the IE protolanguage was adopted, after some mutations in the
meaning, as ketos in Greek, which became a general term indicating a giant animal
in the sea, and later was specified as a whale. From this evolved the Latin word
cetus. Cetus is used for various types of large marine mammals such as fur seals
and dolphins, of course, including whales, even to this day. The family name for
taxonomy of whales is Cetacea, and an alcoholic substance taken from whale wax
is called cetyl alcohol.
whales which provided gelatin is called, in the botanical term, to be the order
of Physeter catodon Linn. The
genus name Physeter was taken from *phu- (meaning to blow and enlarge or blown
and enlarged) in the IE protolanguage, and through *phu-s and *phy-s, was turned
into physa (meaning bubble, water bubble, air bubble, or bellows) or physa
(to blow or blow to enlarge) in Greek. From this word-stem "phys-" came
This word denotes the sound generated at the time of blowing of steam from the
whale's blow-hole (i.e. onomatopaeia such as pyu or fyu). Later it became the
name for the blow-hole, and Linnaeus adopted it as the name of the genus. The
sight of whale blowing steam so dramatically should have been very impressive.
In modern Greek, phystr
means a tube or wind instrument.
The origin of the name catodon,
the species name of a sperm whale, is also interesting. This word is divided into
cato- and odon. Kata and kat
in Greek mean downward and the prefix kat-
(cato- in Latin) also means downward. It is derived from IE protolanguage's *kmta
(beside, along, or downward). Odon means a tooth in Greek, which is dens or dentis
in Latin. Sperm whales (toothed whales) have corn-shaped teeth only in their lower
jaw, and do not have whalebone or baleen in the upper jaw like baleen whales.
Hence, the Latin word catodon means teeth only in lower part, which is a combination
of kato and -odon. The word odon (tooth) comes from *ed (to eat) in the IE protolanguage
and became odn in Greek through
variations of *edont-, and *dont (teeth), and dens or dentis in Latin. In English,
the medical science dealing with teeth is called odontology or dentistry, and
tooth doctor is a dentist.
Physeter catodon Linn
is called a sperm whale in English. In point of fact, this is an abbreviation
of spermaceti whale. Spermaceti means whale wax. Ceti is a genitive case of aforementioned
cetus and was combined with sperma (meaning sperm) to produce sperma-ceti (sperm
of whale). It was later contracted as spermaceti. This naming is based on the
belief that the white-colored solid wax or white wax taken from a sperm whale
was solidified sperm of the whale. Sperm (sperma) has its origin in *sper- (to
scatter, or sow seeds) in the IE protolanguage and became speir,
speirein in Greek having the same meaning, and was turned into the Latin word
sperma, becoming the English term sperm.
we turn our eyes to the etymology of the Japanese name for whale. Makko kujira
(sperm whale) was named so because the color of its body is like the brownish
color of incense powder (makko). Makko is odorous powder made from agalloch and
sandalwood, etc. and is used as incense at the Buddhist altar. Nowadays, it is
made from the fine powder of leaves and skin of shikimi, Japanese anise-tree.
In Japanese, there is a popular expression smell makko when you enter a Buddhist
Let's look at the origin
of the word kujira (whale). According to the Grand Japanese Dictionary published
by in 1979 Shogakukan, the following explanations are given.
(1) It comes for Kushishira (large animal). Ku is an old Korean term meaning big,
and shishi (beast) and ra is a postfix.
(2) Kuroshira (black and white). Its skin is black but it is white inside.
(3) Kushira (queer),
(4) Kojiru (to give much trouble) because it does not become calm easily after
(5) Kujira (to pick) because it hits the boat when emerging
(6) Hakuhiro (one-hundred fathoms or a very wide span)
(7) Kuchibiro (wide mouth) because of its large mouth.
The term kujira appears phonetically
in Kojiki (712), Japan's oldest extant chronicle, recording events from the mythical
age of the gods up to the time of Empress Suiko. It was also called kuji or okuchira.
We know the title of this
publication ISANA. In olden times, whale was called isa. Iki-fdoki,
the topographical description of the Iki region in 713, says: "People in
this province call whales isa."
in olden times fishes were called na as seen in old Japanese literature such as
Nihon Shoki (720), the oldest official history of Japan covering events from the
mythical age of the gods up to the reign of the empress Jito, and Man'yoshu (around
770), the earliest extant collection of Japanese poetry. Therefore, isana is the
combination of isa and na, namely a whale.
As etymology of isana, the
Shogakukan's Grand Japanese Dictionary enumerates: (1) isana (brave fish), (2)
isona (whales near the beaches), (3) i is a prefix and sana comes from sosona
(meaning a diving fish), (4) isana (a fish of 50 shaku long), (5) isana (unknown
fish), i.e. fish inhabiting in the immeasurable depth in the ocean, (6) i is a
prefix and sanatori comes from sunadori (meaning fishing).
From olden times, the term
isana-tori (whalers) was used as a set epithet for the words related to the sea,
beach and open ocean. We can find such expressions, as examples, in old Japanese
literature such as aforementioned Nihon Shoki and Man'yoshu.
Finally, the Chinese ideograph
for whale is pronounced [gyou]
in Wuo sound, [kei] in Han sound, and [gei] customarily. Dividing the ideograph
of whale into two parts vertically, the right half means big and strong while
the left half meaning fish, so the combination of the two halves denotes a big
and strong fish. That is a whale.