07 February 2010

Why Did We Call Them Sperm Whales?

You probably know that spermaceti is a waxy substance which is contained within the skull of the sperm whale, and sadly often obtained from the same. It's white, and a large whale contains up to three tons of the stuff. If you can make it through to chapter seventy-eight of Moby Dick you'll become an expert in how it was extracted, and probably won't envy Tashtego falling into the depths of a whale's head whilst using a bucket to get out all the good stuff.

So, here we have a thick white, gloopy substance. And what might that remind you of, particularly if you're a sailor who's been at sea for a month and you've just thrown one over your thumb earlier that morning? And it all becomes clear: one sperm whale, containing up to three tons of spunk.

And so, we must ask - is there not a better name for the poor thing than Sperm Whale? Well, how about cachalot, the original Spanish and Portugese name for this poor, mis-titled creature. Mind you, cachalot still means 'big head', so it's not that much of an improvement... particularly when you consider the Dutch potvis, or the German pottwal, both of which reference the large head, sticking out like a pan or pot. At least they're descriptive, I suppose.
"Now, had Tashtego perished in that head, it had been a very precious perishing; smothered in the very whitest and daintiest of fragrant spermaceti; coffined, hearsed, and tombed in the secret inner chamber and sanctum sanctorum of the whale."

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