Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Random Thought or Two on Etymology

Like many a reader of Moby Dick, I'm really not sure what to make of the frontsmatter, even now, having had half a life or maybe even more (I shan't know until I'm done, of course) to contemplate the matter. Is the little section labeled "Etymology", followed by the much lengthier section "Extracts", just a way to give us a heads-up that what follows may be a bit odd? Are these sections ways of introducing to us the dry humor and tone, what with his consumptive usher and sub-sub librarian, knowing that in the absence of a huge red flag as to what passes as funny in Melville some may just miss the humor? How many of you chuckled or guffawed at the careful distinction between the Fegee form of "Pekee-Nuee-Nuee" and the Erromangoan* form of "Pehee-Nuee-Nuee"? Or are these beginnings integral parts of the book, the first of our myriad, diverse, and generally unsuccessful and quizzical attempts to figure the Whale?

While I do not know what they all mean, I can say that one thing that is evident is Melville's extreme care with the red pen. Let us look at this first page, Etymology, and at one entry on it, the entry for Webster's dictionary. Here is Melville's entry in the Etymology for Webster's, a book which may well have been in the homes of, and available for consultation by, most American readers of Moby Dick's first edition:
"WHALE. * * * Sw. and Dan. hval. This animal is named from roundness or rolling; for in Dan. hvalt is arched or vaulted.

Melville focuses on the Swedish and Danish word from Webster's. Here is the full entry in Webster's for the etymology (excluding the actual definition):
WHALE, n. [Sax. hwal, hwæl; G. wallfisch, from wallen, to: stir agitate, or rove; D. walvisch; Sw. and Dan. hval. This animal is named from roundness, or from rolling; for in Dan. hvalt is arched or vaulted; hvæller, to arch or vault, D. welven.]

Some of Melville's editorial omissions are supplanted by Melville's entry for Richardson's Dictionary:

WHALE. * * * It is more immediately from the Dut. and Ger. Wallen; A.A. Walw-ian, to roll, to wallow.

I know not exactly what Melville is doing here, but he's telling us half the story and setting up an argument between two etymologies where none exists. And he's getting me riled and argumentative before even introducing his first character (though I know he's likely gotten some others bored and confused).

What sort of dramatic tension is built up by this odd mix of humor, confusion and low dudgeon before the narrative even begins?

* Erromango, for those without intimate knowledge of the South Seas, is an Island that is now part of Vanatu, and lies about 500 miles due west of Fiji, with little but water in between.


  1. I think you are on the right track regarding Etymology. Generations of readers completely miss Melville's frequent use of humor in Moby Dick. How many readers know there's a fart joke in there? Whale farts, even!

    At present, the Project Gutenberg version incorrectly presents the Erromangoan as "PEKEE-NUEE-NUEE", which is unfortunate, because obviously Melville needs all the help he can get raising the red flag. I did send a correction email (and came upon this post looking for online instances of "PEHEE-NUEE-NUEE").

  2. Ugh! The difference betwee "k" and "h" seems the whole point. Thanks for the comment!