Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Unlikely ungulates

Unlikely Ungulates

As noted three posts ago, recent DNA findings have placed some very unlikely animals under the ungulate (hoofed mammals) umbrella: whales, dolphins & porpoises. Most closely related to the hippopotamus, whales, dolphins & porpoises (also known as cetaceans) no longer have an order of their own. Scientists haven’t quite settled over whether cetaceans are a suborder or infra-order of ungulates.

The word cetacean entered English in 1830 from Modern Latin, meaning any large sea creature. The Latin term was derived from the Greek word ketos,  whale or sea monster. No one knows the source of ketos.

The Old English word hwæl, which meant both whale & walrus, gave us the word whale. Hwæl’s source was the Proto-Germanic word hwalaz. Our modern idiom whale of a/n _______, meaning big or excellent showed up in 1900.

One of many whales is the killer whale. The word killer showed up in the 1400s from the English word kill (which first appeared in the 1200s), & meant one who strikes, beats or knocks. Though we’re not 100% sure, kill may have come from the Old English word cwellan, to kill. Cwellan is also the most likely suspect for the source of qualm & quell. Our idiom to kill time kicked in about 1728. The figurative meaning of killer, impressive person or thing appeared in 1900, and the term killer instinct showed up in the world of boxing in 1931. And getting back to cetaceans, the killer whale was first called that in 1725.

In the early 1300s the word porpas appeared in English, from the Old French word porpais, which translates ingloriously to pork fish. Interestingly, the German word for porpoise translates literally to sea hog. It’s likely the somewhat pig-like snout of the porpoise may be responsible for both words, though a modern etymologist might wonder whether those long-ago French & German porpoise-namers may have sensed a deeper connection to the porpoise’s distant ungulate cousin, the pig.

Our word dolphin came from French in the mid-1300s. We can trace dolphin back through Old French, Medieval Latin, Latin & Greek to the word delphinos, meaning dolphin. This Greek root is closely related to delphys, meaning womb. Etymologists suggest Ancient Greeks found it remarkable that instead of coming from eggs, the progeny of this “fish” arrive through live birth.

Dear readers. If you’ve got anything to say about these water-bound “hoofed mammals,” please do so in the comments section.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Science Direct, Ultimate Ungulate, Etymonline, & the OED.


  1. Endlessly fascinating stuff, Mr. Monger. A porpoise is a sea pig? And a dolphin is a swimming womb. With hoofs. Of a semi-imaginary sort. Amazing.

  2. Dearest Miss Allen - A swimming womb with hoofs/hooves - sounds like some newly dug up Peruvian folktale folded into a YA novel by an enterprising author!