When you’re writing and you have to choose either wail or whale, the decision may not seem tricky…except in one specific use that isn’t all that common.
From time to time, I write about homophones, words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different definitions. When you consider the words wail or whale, you can’t call them true homophones. There is a slight difference in how you pronounce the words. Whale has that pesky H that provides just enough of a change to the W sound that you can hear it.
I can imagine three definitions offhand between the two words. I doubt that you’d have much difficulty connecting the right word to the right definition for two of them. But the third? That might be a challenge for some of us.
To wail can mean to express sorrow audibly or make a mournful cry. It can also mean to express dissatisfaction or complain.
You may have heard of The Wailing Wall. Its actual name is the Western Wall and it stands in the Old City of Jerusalem. It is the most religious site in the world for Jewish people, according to Tourist Israel. It is the western support wall of the Temple Mount and thousands journey there each year to visit and recite prayers.
I would imagine it’s a safe bet to suggest that even more people know what a whale is. The featured image for this post is a Humpback Whale. The most famous type might be the Killer Whale which have been popular attractions at SeaWorld and other similar venues. Whales, it’s worth noting, aren’t fish; they’re mammals. The Blue Whale can reach a length of up to 90 feet and weigh as much as 150 tons.
But humans don’t treat these giant creatures with the respect they deserve. Wildlife authorities say six out of the 13 great whale species are either endangered or vulnerable.
Wail or Whale?
Remember the 1985 Brat Pack film The Breakfast Club? It was a movie about five high school students who find themselves together at their school on a Saturday for detention. Emilio Estevez plays athlete Andrew Clark, who is being punished for assaulting a classmate.
He gives a poignant speech about what led him down that path. But in describing the actual incident, he gives this line. I’m going to leave a blank at the appropriate moment:
Some I’m sitting in a locker room and I’m taping up my knee, and Larry’s undressing a couple lockers down from me. He’s just kind of skinny. Weak. I started thinking about my father, his attitude about weakness. And the next thing I knew, I jumped up and started ____________ on him. And my friends, they just laughed and cheered me on.
The word omitted is either wailing or whaling. Which should it be?
Closed captioning, which is not necessarily known for perfect transcription — much less proper grammar — listed the word as wailing. I’ve heard the phrase before.
But in another movie, Stephen King’s Storm of the Century, there’s a point at which a constable has to jail a murder suspect, but the back door to the jail facility is jammed in the middle of a snow storm. The constable tells his deputy there’s probably ice stuck in the door jamb. Close captioning transcribes the instruction as, “Then whale on it.”
It’s the same definition for both lines: to beat, hit or whip. That definition applies to an alternate meaning of the word whale. The Online Etymology Dictionary, which tracks the origin of words, states that this definition has been in the English language since 1790, and may be a variant of the word wale. But to whale on something means to get violent with it.
Closed captioning for The Breakfast Club scored a failing grade on that line. But the storm clouds of error cleared just in time for that line to pop up in captions on Storm of the Century.
Granted, you won’t use that third definition all that often. But it is amazing what you can learn from reading closed captioning, isn’t it?