Wailin’ and whalin’

Words labeled as “informal” or “colloquial” in the dictionary show up in print in our conversational age. Yesterday, I ran across a sentence that referred to a man who “wails” on another. I thought the word was spelled differently, but I had to look it up. It’s “whales.”

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines whale as “to beat, whip or thrash.” It calls the word colloquial and suggests that it comes from wale “to mark the skin with wales” (A wale in this case is a welt raised by a striking the skin with a whip.)

This is apparently a longtime meaning for whale. The Online Etymology Dictionary and other dictionaries date it to 1790.

The way I will remember this is that a whaling is similar to whipping — or, as some of my Western North Carolina folks might say, a whuppin’. Or you could think of a whale thrashing and flopping around.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.