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Etymology of ‘Sperm Whale’

One of largest living animals and the species that inspired Moby Dick, the sperm whale seems designed specifically to make 13-year-old boys giggle. Those of us who are slightly more mature will scoff at the giggling and assume that perhaps there is some archaic, etymological reasoning for the sea mammal’s unfortunate name.

Well, nope. The sperm whale is called a sperm whale for exactly the reason you think it is. Don’t forget that it was named by a bunch of sailors after all.

Early whalers found that upon harpooning this big-headed whale that it was filled with a viscous white liquid that is said to possess “the odor of the new-drawn milk“. This liquid is called spermaceti which resides in an organ above the whale’s nose and is so massive that it accounts for much of the whale’s mass. Spermaceti (which is Latin for ‘whale’s seed‘) probably functions to help with buoyancy or aid in echolocation, and was later found to have nothing to do with semen (both male and female sperm whales possess spermaceti). Though this didn’t stop early seamen from christening the species with its unfortunate name.

Unfortunate still, is that the most famous sperm whale is one Moby Dick from the Herman Melville novel Moby-Dick (yes, the novel is hyphenated and the character’s name is not). But, surely this is just an anachronistic quirk that has become euphemistic over time (like the Joker’s boner). Well, remember what I said about sailors? Moby Dick is named after a very real white whale called Mocha Dick, and yes, Dick is likely a euphemism for penis.