Whaling/Wailing/Waling on

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Michael Martinez, "Marine investigated in videotaped road rage at Camp Pendleton", CNN 4/5/2013:

The Marine, whose name, rank or unit weren't being released, was cited for communicating a threat in the incident, but he wasn't charged as of Friday, said Sgt. Christopher Duncan, a Camp Pendleton spokesman.

The video, which went viral on the Internet, shows a young man yelling outside a truck, and he uses his hands and feet to wail on the truck whose driver sits calmly behind the wheel with the window rolled up. A woman passenger films the video.

The cited video is here, though 6,235 views seems short of "viral" status .

The OED has whale, v.2 Now U.S. colloq. "To beat, flog, thrash". The etymology is given as

Of obscure origin. Commonly regarded as a spelling of wale v.1, but there are difficulties of form, chronology, and meaning. Perhaps originally = to thrash with a whalebone whip

The citations are

1790   F. Grose Provinc. Gloss. (ed. 2) ,   Whale, to beat with a horsewhip or pliant stick.
1801   G. Hanger Life II. 162   Whaleing a gentleman is but a vulgar revenge.
1884   ‘M. Twain’ Adventures Huckleberry Finn iii. 30   He used to always whale me when he was sober and could get his hands on me.

For most people, a pugilistic interpretation of wail "grieve aloud", in the spirit of the musical usage "To perform in an especially vigorous and exciting way", probably makes more sense than anything having to do with cetaceans.  So I wasn't surprised by the eggcorn, for which there's plenty of precedent — COCA has 4 instances of "whale on" vs. 16 instances of the same idiom spelled with "wail" (6 "wailing on", 4 "wail on", 3 "wailed on", 3 "wails on"); and examples of "wail away at" were entered into the Eggcorn Database by Arnold Zwicky in 2005.

[And COCA also has two cases where the idiom is spelled "wale", both in the form "waling on".]

But I don't recall having seen this expression used in formal writing before, in whatever spelling. If CNN counts as formal writing. And not that I object or anything.


  1. Alacritas said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 5:05 am

    I honestly thought that's how it was spelled as well!

  2. Ø said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 6:13 am

    I don't use this word myself, but whenever I run across it (usually hearing it, not seeing it), I undergo a slight discomfort or at least uncertainty because I don't know how it's "supposed" to be spelled.

    A similar case for me is tap as in "X has been tapped for the position". Here spelling is not an issue, but I am always unsure as to whether it's like a tap on the shoulder or a tap on the head, or opening a spigot to let some human resources out of the barrel.

  3. diyclassics said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 6:37 am

    Interesting that the Latin plangere has the same double meaning of beat/mourn. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?la=la&l=plangere#lexicon

  4. Ø said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 6:44 am

    John McIntyre spells it "wale" in his mint julep recipe.

    [(myl) This also makes sense, as a figurative extension of wale v.2 "To mark (the flesh) with wales or weals". I've updated the title to reflect this third alternative.]

  5. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 8:14 am

    I live in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the former "whaling capital of the world" and home to the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The museum's extensive collection of products made from various portions of the whale's anatomy includes some "whalebone" whips, which were actually made of baleen. This stuff is both very hard and very pliable and I wouldn't want to be hit with one.

    Maybe it's only hometown favoritism, but I definitely lean toward "whale" as the spelling.

  6. J.L. Barnes said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 8:28 am

    Out of curiosity, how old is the oldest citation for "wail" on?

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 8:38 am

    I first encountered it in college and understood it cetaceanly as giving someone a whale of a beating or landing on someone like a ton of bricks (or two hundred tons of flesh). However, I wouldn't want to say what the correct spelling is. I do want to say that the use of it in a CNN story is a sign of the decay of human civilization. :-)

  8. Bruce said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 10:10 am

    I always associated this term with growing up in Canada

    "He totally whaled on the defenceman".

    Like Jerry I have a mental image of whales soaring through the air and squashing hapless victims. I personally have zero association with 'wail' – I think a whaling could be administered silently.

    [(myl) In 1966 in Boston I went to a Donovan concert where the opening act was a Jamaican group billed as "Bob Marley and the Whalers". They were good, but we kept waiting in vain for the whaling part. ]

  9. Faldone said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 10:47 am

    I think a whaling could be administered silently.

    Not in this case it wasn't. He was whaling and wailing.

  10. Sara Scharf said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

    I heard this a lot when I was growing up in small-town Ontario. It's still relatively common there, especially in casual/blue collar conversation. I always though the spelling should be "waling," or "to wale," but a story in The Onion in 2000 spells it "whaling" (not that the Onion is Canadian, but the tone is right).

  11. Bonzo said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 12:10 pm

    am I the only one who finds the following clumsy:
    whose name, rank or unit weren't being released,

    for me the 'or' indicates that one of these pieces of information (or in this case, none of these pieces of information) would have been enough to identify the Marine in question, and that, therefore, it should have taken a singular: whose name, rank or unit wasn't being released ( as in: whose name, or rank, or unit (please pick one) wasn't being released). If the text had read: whose name, rank and unit weren't being released, it would have appeared completely normal to me.

    am I wrongly reading this, and if so, why?

  12. Ø said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

    Bonzo, I don't like it either. Also I point out that if the writer had only avoided that pesky passive voice it would have been fine: "[The authorities] were not releasing his name, rank, or unit."

  13. Faldone said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 12:50 pm

    According to the venerable Strunk and White, you're correct. The verb covering a list with an OR conjunction follows the person and number of the last element in the list. I, however, am a native English speaker and it sounds right to me as written, "… name, rank, or unit weren't …" If asked to explain why it sounds right I would say it is because it's any combination of those three elements, any one, any two, or all three. It's an inclusive OR as far as I can tell. Note that only his name could have uniquely identified him.

  14. Ø said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 3:08 pm

    Faldone, I don't think Bonzo's point was about weren't versus wasn't. It's about how natural language handles the logical phenomenon expressed by

    not (X and Y) ~ (not X) or (not Y)

    not (X or Y) ~ (not X) and (not Y)


    1. They divulged his name and rank.
    2. They divulged his name or rank. [Grammatical but an odd thing to say. Presumably equivalent to "They divulged either his name or his rank", perhaps in the sense of "either or both" or perhaps in the other sense.]

    1'. His name and rank were divulged. [Restatement of 1.]
    2'. His name or rank was divulged. [Restatement of the odd statement 2.]

    -1. They did not divulge his name and rank. [Negation of 1.]
    -2. They did not divulge his name or rank. [Negation of 2.]

    -1'. His name and rank were not divulged. [To me pretty clearly equivalent to -1.]
    -2'. His name or rank was not divulged. [This is problematic because cases can be made for two interpretations: "Neither his name nor his rank was divulged" and "Either his name or his rank was not divulged."]

    Something about the scope of "not", it seems.

  15. Y said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

    I have heard the word in US English, but I don't remember if the people I heard use it distinguished w and wh, which many but not all Americans and only a few Brits do. I wonder if the citations given in the OED using the wh- spelling were all by speakers who merged w and wh.

  16. Ø said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 8:23 pm

    I take it back. -1' seems clearly equivalent to -2.

  17. Doreen said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 2:49 am

    A vaguely remembered anecdote from 25-30 years ago: I commonly heard this in the speech of my [male] high-school classmates in the rural Upper Midwest in the '80s and assumed it would be spelled waling on, not whaling on, because we still had some /w/-/wh/ distinction in our speech (wheat was a common topic of conversation in the farming community). I don't think I ever considered "wailing on" as a possible spelling.

  18. Faldone said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 6:50 am

    @Ø: You did a good job of explicating why normal English OR is potentially ambiguous but it seems to me that it all boils down to whether you use a third person singular verb or not. Certainly that seems to be the centerpiece of Bonzo's comment. There are ways to disambiguate that OR; one is the often despised and/or to indicate that you mean the inclusive OR or the form "X or either (that or) Y" to indicate that you mean the exclusive XOR. The latter, of course, is available only in some dialects.

  19. Y said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 8:46 am

    I presume the word has nothing to do with whales. So how to explain the sources in the OED? The British ones, I presume, are from w/wh merged people, which leaves Mark Twain.
    Did Mark Twain merge w/wh? There's no direct evidence, since no recordings of him survive. The closest thing is a recording of William Jennings, an actor who had been a neighbor and a friend of Twain's. In Jennings' own speech, there are no examples of , but his accent is New England, and presumably merged the two, but in his imitation of Twain, the w/wh distinction is clear.
    That makes it hard to reconcile Twain's spelling with my idea that the verb was pronounced with a /w/. Jennings may have gilded Twain's accent by giving it an extra Southern characteristic; or, the editor of the edition of Huck Finn quoted in the OED might have adjusted the spelling. An accurate edition based on the original manuscript might be able to resolve this.

  20. Ø said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 8:48 am

    Faldone: You are right, and I was wrong, about Bonzo's focus being on the verb number as the disturbing aspect of the quote.

    What I was trying to get at in my tediously detailed comment was a different idea of what the disturbing aspect is. But I really wasn't talking about the famous ambiguity (exclusive vs inclusive) of "or", except to mention it in passing once.

  21. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 8:12 pm

    When I learned the term, I saw it spelled "wale" when it met whipping or hitting someone or something.I have always assumed (perhaps erroneously) that when Twain has Huck Finn talking about being "whaled" that it was a deliberate misspelling to represent Huck's lack of education.

    Corduroy has different wale widths and features ridges. I don't know if "waling" on someone left raised stripes, or wales, on the skin, but the connections I made didn't involve whips of whalebone but the stripes of a beating.

  22. Yosemite Semite said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 10:23 pm

    I heard this expression a lot as a kid growing up in the interior Western US: desert Oregon on the California border, with the predominant national origin in the county being Irish. We had (or at least I have, presumably from childhood exposure) the /w/-/wh/ distinction. The action of beating on someone/something was definitely waling, and as far as pronunciation goes, could not be connected to cetaceans.

  23. Yosemite Semite said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 10:37 pm

    Oops, misremembered my data: German THEN Irish. It only seemed Irish to me growing up.

  24. blahedo said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 11:58 pm

    "whaling on" someone is a usage that I associate with school generally and junior high (grades 7-8) specifically, and with the clear mental spelling starting with "wh", but I picked it up early enough that I was not troubled by the fact that there was no obvious connection to cetaceans. It was just a word, and like children everywhere, I just learned it as a unit without having to think very critically about it.

    That said, I do have the w/wh merger, so I don't have evidence on that count; the acquisition would have been mid-80s in the Chicago suburbs.

    Interestingly, when I see "wailing on" it strikes me as an eggcorn or a regional curiosity, while "waling on" strikes me as a pure misspelling. I'm not sure why I would perceive them so differently.

  25. Mr Punch said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 9:05 am

    I've heard, and occasionally read, this term all my life (60s, New England) and I've always thought of it as "whaling"; by the way, there are plenty of New Englanders who distinguish w from wh.

  26. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

    This post cites various sources, but the takeaway I get is that wale/whale (meaning beating) have been alternative spellings with similar meanings for centuries. The words the post considers include weal, wheal, wale, and whale:


    "The OED also has an entry for wale as a verb meaning “to mark (the flesh) with wales or weals” and gives this example from 1634: O my blessed Saviour, was it not enough that thy sacred body was stripped of thy garments, and waled with bloudy stripes?

    "A dark side to this etymological foray is that the evolution of these words took place in times when whipping was such a regular event that most people had seen what it does to a person’s back."

  27. Quantum Mechanic said,

    May 7, 2013 @ 7:50 am

    I'm a 45yo native New Englander and I've always pronounced it, written it, and heard it as "whaling".

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 7, 2013 @ 11:03 am

    Google books turns up the phrase "[to give one a] whale of a beating" as early as 1915. That's not as old as the Huckleberry Finn quote. Maybe it's unrelated, maybe the modern usage of "whale on" both had some 19th century antecedents but was also independently derived from "whale of a beating" or at least saved from falling into archaism by that similar-sounding fixed phrase? 1915 also happens to be the earliest google books hit for "whale of a good time." The "whale of an N/NP" construction seems to have been in vogue in general back then: e.g. a 1913 issue of Boys' Life has "When a hen lays an egg there's a whale of a noise." So that imho makes it comparatively unlikely that an existing sense of "whale" to mean "beat" was the only thing driving the (seemingly redundant on that account?) phrase "whale of a beating."

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 7, 2013 @ 11:20 am

    There is a legendary-in-some-circles anthology LP from 1987 of various bands who'd recorded for the cult label Homestead Records titled "The Wailing Ultimate." I'd say the don't miss cuts on it are Repulsion by Dinosaur and Letter to a Fanzine by Great Plains, but YMMV. I don't have my LP's with me here at the office and I was actually not sure w/o googling whether it was Wailing or Whaling, since "Wailing" has an obvious loud-rock-music sense that probably goes back to beatniks talking about jazz but I associated the title somehow with the "whaling on" notion as well. So google informs me that the LP title is definitely "Wailing" BUT (and this is what was news to me although it's not impossible I knew about it a quarter-century ago but then forgot) the anthology title seems in turn to be an allusion to a differently-spelled title "The Whaling Ultimate," which was a song released on Homestad the prior year on the b-side of a 45 by the band Phantom Tollbooth (the a-side of that single is in the subsequent anthology; the quasi-titular b-side not).

  30. Spike said,

    October 11, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

    Sounds like the unscientific anecdotal hypothesis that's emerging here is that a word pronounced 'waling' or 'whaling' in the UK region and having the sense of marking with or raising weals is centuries old, came over with the colonists and later immigrants, and in New England, in a culture where 'whale' became a ubiquitous word and concept, 'whale of an X' became common and influenced the emergence of 'whale' as an alternate spelling and pronunciation, which has spread (no surprise) across the US and Canada in modern times.
    It's not hard to see how high frequency use of 'whale' (originally 'cetacean' but later 'powerful, extreme') would prime, in the cognitive linguistic sense, a shift from 'wale' to 'whale'.

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