Tag Archives: origin of to whale on


One of the most stupid claims in Cassidy’s book (and there are SO MANY OF THEM) is the one about whale. Apparently, to whale on someone means to beat or hit them. Nobody knows for sure where this word comes from. My first thought was that it might be from the power and violence of a whale, which could easily smash a boat with one flick of its tail, but apparently that’s not it.  It seems that this use of whale as a verb meaning beat or whip first occurs in the late 18th century and it has been suggested (quite reasonably) that it comes from the word wale, to mark with wales (variant of weals) or stripes, which has been used since the 15th century.

Cassidy, of course, disagrees and comes up with his own childish guess. According to him, it comes from bhuail, the past tense of buail, meaning to hit. As I have said before, words and phrases are not just borrowed any old how between languages. Cassidy thought it was OK to take any form which suited his purpose, plural, grammatically inflected, past tense, a hotchpotch of bad grammar or even just bits of phrases. Whichever form sounded most like his target was the one that ‘must’ have passed from pidgin Irish to slang English.

So, in the case above, if we allow the different mutations, we have buail (booil), bhuail (wooil or vooil depending ón dialect), mbuail (mooil). And of course, as we’ve seen in Cassidy’s overuse of aingí, vowels counted for nothing in his methodology. So the word buail could give ríse to whale, wheel, meal, mole, moll, mall, ball, bowl, bowel, vowel, veal, vole, and a couple of hundred other English words. When you’re casting your net as widely as this, it’s not difficult to find impressive-looking connections.  But they are only impressive if you don’t look too closely. In fact, you could say the same thing about Cassidy and all his works. They are only impressive if you don’t look too closely.