I always thought a narwhal was, etymologically, a “corpse whale”; if you’re not familiar with that etymology, Stan at Sentence first provides links to several essentially identical derivations from Old Norse náhvalr. But he complicates the picture by mentioning other “speculative origin stories,” and quotes the OED’s comprehensive etymology:

Probably < Danish narhval, cognate with Norwegian narkval, Swedish narval (1754), and further cognate with Old Icelandic náhvalr < a first element of uncertain origin (perhaps < nár corpse: see need n., with reference to the colour of the animal’s skin; or perhaps shortened < nál needle n., with reference to the straight tusk) + hvalr whale n.; the epenthetic –r– in the Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish forms has not been satisfactorily explained (see note below). Compare Middle French nahual (1598; French †narhual (1647), †narwal (1676), narval (1723)), Spanish narval (1706), Italian narvalo (1745), Dutch narwal (1769), German Narwal (18th cent.), all ultimately borrowings from Scandinavian.

Alternative etymologies connect the first element with the Germanic base of either nase n. or narrow adj.; both of these suggestions assume that forms with –r– are primary, and that forms without –r– (the earliest attested forms) are alterations by folk etymology, after Old Icelandic nár corpse.

The Russian word is, unsurprisingly, нарвал [narval].


  1. David Marjanović says:

    A nose-whale with added Verner?

  2. I was told long ago that narwhal is the only English mammal that starts with n-. I’ve since learned of the nutria and the numbat, but these are still slim pickings.

  3. George Grady says:

    There’s also the nilgai and the ningaui. And if you allow multi-word species names, there’s things like the naked mole-rat, and there’s bound to be some species that start with northern, New Guinea and such, although that seems like cheating. And there’s so many different kinds of bats, there’s bound to be some that start with N. (Looking things up, there are. There are naked-back bats and noctule bats, among others.)

  4. See, you have to scrape pretty hard to come up with any more. I only heard about the ningaui for the first time yesterday, when reading about floods destroying the habitat of its cousin, the Julia Creek dunnart.

    I haven’t conducted a scientific survey to see if n- is really exceptional that way (relative to its general frequency) or if other kinds of animals display the same peculiarity.

    (Using naked and northern is definitely cheating.)

  5. Also nahur/naur, aka bharal, nyala, and notoungulates.

  6. Naugahyde is the skin of a North American mammal.

  7. Nesophontes.

    But unfortunately they are extinct as no doubt the narwhals will be in near future.

    N curse at work.

  8. January First-of-May says:

    Surely there’s also the newfoundland (though I’m not sure if it’s actually called that way in English, as opposed to “Newfoundland dog” or similar).

  9. neanderthal

  10. Nutria

  11. Already got nutria.

  12. The Niata or Ñata is an extinct breed of dwarf cattle from Uruguay and Argentina.

  13. Narrow-ridged finless porpoise

  14. Nubian wild ass

  15. N-initialled northern Norwegian mammal… y’all are just cheating.

  16. Why Narrow-ridged finless porpoise would be cheating if ‘narrow whale’ is not?

  17. Graham Asher says:

    neat = cow

  18. Graham Asher says:

    The entry for narval in the Svensk etymologisk ordbok ( supports the corpse derivation:

    narval, 1796 (då ännu enstaka) = da. narhval; från nord. komma eng.
    narw(h)ale, fra. narval osv, Ombildat av isl. náhvalr, som på grund av djurets
    gulvita färg vanl. plägar föras till isl. nár (genit. nás) m., lik, no. naae, got.
    naus, ags. néo-, besl. med fslav. navĭ
    ds., lett. nāwe, död, osv.

    That is:

    narval, 1796 (then still rare) = Danish narhval; From the Scandinavian forms are derived the English narw(h)ale, French narval etc. Formed from Icelandic náhvalr, which by reason of the animal’s yellow-white colour is usually connected with Icelandic nár (genitive nás) masculine, corpse, Norwegian naae, Gothic naus, old German néo-, cognate with proto-Slavic navĭ (ditto), Latvian nāwe, dead, etc.

  19. John Cowan says:

    As in neatherd, neat-house, neat(s)foot oil, and neat’s leather, but otherwise obsolete. A pity, too, since it is the cover term for ‘any bovine animal’ that we no longer have in English.

  20. After hearing a story about narwhal horns being sold as unicorn horns I’ve always been thinking of narwhals as unicorn whales. They have quite a mythical shimmer around them! Corpse whales does not have quite the same ring to it.


    When she was in preschool, my daughter loved unicorns. Now she prefers narwhals.

  22. Aren’t cattle any bovine animal?

  23. = Danish narhval

    Norwegian narhval. [Walks away muttering]

  24. Lars (the original one) says:

    *Offers hand* Dano-Norwegian narhval?

  25. John Cowan says:

    Aren’t cattle any bovine animal?

    They are, but only collectively. There is no singular noun that means ‘calf or heifer or cow or bull or ox, individual member of Bos taurus‘.

  26. Scandinavians are so understanding and public-spirited. Were the Vikings like that?

    Cattle Plurale tantum.

  27. Stephen Carlson says:

    neat = cow
    Of course! I should have predicted it from Swedish nöt.

  28. nautakjöt (Is), naudanliha (Fi) = beef

  29. Trond Engen says:

    < *nautanlíka-neat corpse”, I presume.

    Graham Asher: neat = cow
    John Cowan: As in neatherd, neat-house, neat(s)foot oil, and neat’s leather, but otherwise obsolete. A pity, too, since it is the cover term for ‘any bovine animal’ that we no longer have in English.

    There’s also a High German *Noß (or some such) < OHG nōz waiting to be resurrected.

    Lars: Dano-Norwegian narhval?

    Sure. Non-Southeastern Norwegian (and Nynorsk) has kval. But narkval isn’t even in Grunnmanuskriptet.

    My personal favorite etymology is naðr m. “snake; sword” (= Eng. nadder) with a probable variant form narr attested as a sword’s name in poetry. The variant compound forms could all be quasi-regular simplifications after naðr became obscure.

    A wild (and probably wildly wrong) idea that struck me now is that narhval could be a folk etymology of **narfill, a hypothesized predecessor of the narvetre or narvejarn, i.e. a ribbed tool for leatherwork.

    Sidetrack: I was at the Musée de Cluny recently. It had some impressive pieces of late medieval ivory on display, explaining the richness with increased availabilty of African and Oriental ivory from the 13th century. Interestingly, this coincides with the climax of the trade in narwhal teeth from the north. Did the supply of narwhal teeth reduce the demand for real ivory for minor pieces and thus make elephant tusks more available on the royal and ecclesiastical market?

  30. John Cowan says:

    *nautanlíka- “neat corpse”

    Modern English *neatlich or even *neatly. Adverbial -ly is ultimately from lic too, so e.g. happily ‘lit. (with) happy body’. This is just the opposite semantically of Romance -ment, -mente, e.g. Spanish felizmente ‘lit. (with) happy mind’, but both suffixes are applied indiscriminately to both physical and mental adjectives.


    Adder nowadays, thanks to misanalysis of a naddre.

  31. liha means ‘meat’ and has no known etymology beyond Finnic (even Livonian lejā points rather to *lehä).

  32. Trond Engen says:

    Yes, Fi. -h- < Gmc. -k- didn’t look regular. And -d- < -t- isn’t too good either. What would a Baltic parallel to *Nautanl(e)ika- look like?

  33. David Marjanović says:

    < *nautanlíka- “neat corpse”, I presume.

    I wondered about that, but I don’t know the history of Finnic vowel length at all well, and I think I noticed that the h doesn’t fit, too…

    There’s also a High German *Noß (or some such) < OHG nōz waiting to be resurrected.

    Completely replaced by Rind (pl. -er because of course).

    Actually, I wonder if Rind is a back-formation from its synonym (and insult) Rindvieh, *”horned livestock”, *”horned possession”. In the Bavarian-Austrian dialects at the very least, [fɪç] has become a count noun (pl. [ˈfɪçːɐ] with analogical consonant length) meaning “animal” – farm animals archetypically, but happily applied to insects.

    And -d- < -t- isn’t too good either.

    That looks like Finnic-internal consonant gradation: nauta, gen. naudan?

    What would a Baltic parallel to *Nautanl(e)ika- look like?

    Baltic is [x]-free zone.

  34. Trond Engen says:

    David M.: nauta, gen. naudan?

    Yes, obviously. I was too obsessed with the idea of a compound borrowing to notice.

    Baltic is [x]-free zone.

    But Baltic sibillants yield Fi. h. It was another spur of the moment idea, based on the recollection that Gmc. *leika- is pretty lonely, etymologywise, so the *k could just as well be an original palatal.

    Now I’ve even looked at it. It’s true that *leika- “body” is rather lonely. The internally reconstructed meaning “shape, form” is generally accepted, but beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be consensus. Some don’t go further. Others (including B&L) derive it from the verb *laikan- “move swiftly”, i.e. a semantic path “movement” -> “appearance” -> “shape” -> “body”.

    What I didn’t know is that there’s a homonymous *leika- n. “rope reinforcing the edges of a sail” < *ley-ǵ- “bind”, a root that is more or less all over IE except for Baltic. So what if they are the same word? The semantic path would be “binding” -> “containment” -> “holster” -> “body”, which I think I find simpler. A Baltic cognate could have been borrowed into Finnic and yielded -h-.

    Unfortunately this leaves the verb *laikan- “move swiftly” and its actually existing Baltic cognate Lith. láigyti “run about wildly” (of horses) orphaned. To which I may retort that those poor verbs were orphaned anyway, even if *leika- “body” was orphaned with them.

  35. January First-of-May says:

    and its actually existing Baltic cognate Lith. láigyti “run about wildly” (of horses)

    With completely no knowledge of how the sound correspondences actually play out: is Russian лягать(ся) “to kick” (of horses) related in any way?

    (Looking it up, apparently this is one of the options proposed and discarded by Vasmer.)

Speak Your Mind