Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Daily Hump: Narwhal

Yesterday we humped reindeer and today we're going to hump another animal with an affinity for the cold, the arctic narwhal. The narwhal is a type of whale most notable for the extremely long tusk that juts from the left jaw of the male. These tusks can grow up to 10 feet long which is pretty impressive when you consider the whale itself is no longer than 16 feet.

In Inuit legend the narwhal was created when a woman holding onto a harpoon was dragged into the sea by a beluga and became twisted upon the weapon. In Medieval folklore many Europeans equated the narwhal tusk to the unicorn horn. Vikings and other northern traders sold the tusks for large sums of gold as cups fashioned from the ivory were believed to negate the effect of any poison which they held inside.

The word narwhal comes to us from the Danish and Norwegian narhval, which itself is from the Old Norse nāhvalr. It is generally assumed that the Old Norse name is derived from nār, corpse (from its whitish color) + hvalr, whale, although this is not known for sure. Another suggestion is that the narwhal was named "the corpse whale" for its ability to lie belly up and motionless for a few minutes at a time. Or, alternatively, nā- could be short for the Old Norse nál, meaning needle, an obvious reference to the male's tusk.

Here's a fun bit of mental masturbation: If we assume the first element nā- is from nār (corpse) this is a cognate with the Old English ne, neo, which is an element associated with things that are dead. Examples in Old English include neobedd (death bed), the root of our modern word need (surprisingly enough) and orcneas (evil spirits); orcneas is the likely source of our word orc and shares a Latin root with orca, another species of whale.

narwhal [Wikipedia]
narwhal [AHD]
narwhal [Online Etymology Dictionary]
narwhal [OED]
orca [Online Etymology Dictionary]
need [OED]
orc [OED]
orc [Online Etymology Dictionary]

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:: posted by David, 8:12 AM


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