Thursday, August 21, 2008

Waling on the Wailing Whale

Marisa from Tampa writes: “This is something I’ve only heard; I’ve never seen it in print. When you beat somebody hard enough to cause bruises, you whale on them. Or is it wail?”

There’s a third possibility. To wale on someone is to whip them enough to raise welts on the skin (17th c.). Wale is also the word used to name the parallel ridges that appear on corduroy fabric, and it signified the piece of timber extending horizontally round the top of the sides of a boat -- the gunwale. Wale comes from the Old English walu, the mark of a lash.

But there is a verb to whale, meaning to strike repeatedly, to thrash (18th c.). That would work, too. In fact, it seems to be much more popular than to wale. Ironically, it may be a variant spelling of wale. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it might originally have been “to thrash with a whalebone whip.”

Wail, a lament or expression of grief, comes from a presumed Old Norse word, veila, to bleat or wail.

SIDEBAR: ritualistic wailing

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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