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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Who knew you could go whaling at Costco?

In an incident that gives the lie to Canadians' smug belief that we are always the epitome of politeness, a brawl broke out over a parking spot at a Costco in a Toronto suburb on the weekend. You can see the edifying spectacle here:

The person who filmed it was quoted by CBC as follows:
"I was just doing some shopping," the real estate agent told CBC News, "and all of a sudden there was a lot of screaming and yelling." The participants moved their cars, he said, and then "they came back to the middle of the parking lot and started again. It wasn't long before they started wailing on each other."
Now, although the high-pitched screeching of one of the participants could put one in mind of wailing, the correct word in this instance is, perhaps surprisingly, "whaling". But this whaling, meaning "beat, strike, thrash" has nothing to do with Moby Dick, or possibly only tangentially. It is a word of obscure origin that cropped up in the late 18th century. One theory is that it derives from the practice of beating someone with a whalebone riding whip. These did indeed exist, but the first mention of them is later than the first mention of whaling on someone. 

The whale which is the source of whalebone was originally in Anglo-Saxon a hwal, one of many English words where the hw- got switched around to a bizarre wh- in the spelling. Although the hw- pronunciation still survives in some varieties of English (Scots, Irish, American), in Canada the hw- pronunciation of these words is now almost dead, making "whale" and "wail" homophones and resulting in the kind of spelling confusion we have in this article. 

(By the way, the noun "whale" became a verb meaning "hunt for whales" in the late 1600s. Just thought I'd mention that.)

"Wail" seems to be from an Old Norse word related to the word "woe". 

One thing is for sure: Saturday shoppers whaling on one another over a parking spot is definitely a decline in civility worth bewailing.

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  1. I knew the term but not the origin ... thank you!

    If only people would learn to tow the line.


  2. I think 'waling' is actually the word he meant:


    1. that's possible, though the evidence in the verb "to hit" sense supports "whaling"


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.