The Naming of Things: Narwhals

AKA Narly whales who many also be sea unicorns

“Narwhals, narwhals, swimming in the ocean, causing a commotion, cuz they are so awesome…”
Photo by Bryan and Cherry Alexander

Narwhals are awesome. I mean – they’re the closest thing to a unicorn that we’re ever likely to see! SO cool! So is the story behind their name as awesome as they are? I’ll let you decide.

The word Narwhal is best thought to come from the Old Norse words nár and whal. Whal meant “whale” while nár meant “corpse.” Apparently ancient Vikings thought that between their grey and mottled coloration and their habit of resting still at the surface for long periods of time (known as “logging”) narwhals looked like drowned sailors. I don’t really see it but ok.

Thankfully There’s no dead body reference in their scientific name. Monodon monoceros is derived from the Greek “one-tooth” and “one-horn,” and while the narwhal’s “horn” is actually a tooth I can see how they got there. Plus it’s well on its way to being a great follow-up to the “Purple People Eater” song!

“One toothed one horned grey and mottled na-ar-wha-al…”

I’ll take narwhal over “corpse whale” any day but I’m also still sometimes going to call them a sea unicorn… they’re just so awesome!

We don’t have any Whale Tales about Narwhals yet but we do have three stories about their cousins the Beluga! Share your encounter about any whale, dolphin or porpoise here.

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