The Naming of Things: Killer Whale vs Orca

Killer Whale or Orca – That is the Question.

T124C by Brendon Bissonnette

I don’t know if there’s any cetacean whose common name inspires more debate than that of the Killer Whale, I mean Orca, I mean Killer Whale.

When two people who love this species meet their conversation may go something like this:

“You love Killer Whales? I love Killer Whales! Let’s be best friends!”

“Ok! But did you know that Killer Whales aren’t actually whales? They’re the largest species of dolphin. That’s why I call them Orca instead.”

“I did know that. But did you know that technically all dolphins are toothed whales? So Killer Whale is actually still correct.”

“Ya but it’s so mean. They’re such beautiful animals I think Orca is a more respectful term.”

“Only if you don’t speak Latin. Orca comes from their scientific name which basically means demon from hell!”

J27 “Blackberry” by Gary Sutton

Both of these people have made some excellent points and both sides are correct. Mostly.

Let’s start with the scientific name – Orcinus orca. “Orcinus” translates from Latin to “belonging to Orcus.” If you’re up on your Roman mythology you may recognize the name Orcus. He was the God of the underworld (sometimes this is also Pluto, don’t get me started…) and he was also the punisher of broken oaths. Given that the underworld was so closely related to him it was often simply referred to as Orcus itself. So yes, “Orcinus” roughly means “from hell.” “Orca” on the other hand does not mean “demon.” It translates to the much more mundane “large-bellied pot or jar.” This was likely in reference to the body shape of the Killer Whale and some documents suggest that ancient romans eventually used the term “Orca” to refer to any whale or large fish. So loosely, Orcinus orca means “whale from hell.”

Now for the Killer Whale term. Likely this common name comes from sailors and fishermen who observed the animals hunting and killing large whales and therefore called them “whale killers.” Overtime the words were reversed and up until the 1960s and 70s no one had any problem with it because Killer Whales were largely considered to be fierce and feared predators. English isn’t the only language to vilify these animals either. In Spanish they’re common name in “ballena asesina” which means “assassin whale,” and the Haida of North America call them “Ska-ana,” which is a killer demon.

While the term “Killer Whale” does raise a lot of eyebrows and invites us to point out how wrong it is I can’t help but appreciate how right it is too. These animals are whales (see the earlier “all dolphins are whales but not all whales are dolphins” point) and they are killers. Any animal that eats another animal is a killer. That’s nature. What’s awe-inspiring about Killer Whales is just how GOOD they are at killing. Each population is made up of teams of highly trained, specialized, lethal predators that have the ability to take down pretty much whatever they want. They can kill a great white shark! They can kill a blue whale! Some even jump out of the water to grab seals and sea lions from beaches and ice floats! They’re amazing!!!

Photo by Whale Watch Western Australia

Whether you’re team “Killer Whale” or team “Orca” you may have very strong feelings about which term to use. Here at Whale Tales we use the category “Killer Whale” (you can find it under the Dolphin category!) because it’s still how they’re officially recognized by Canadian scientists but interchange the terms depending on what our storytellers use. Hopefully that’s ok with the whales from hell. 😉

PS: read our 300+ Killer Whale/Orca stories here

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