The Whales: Leviathans and “Fish”

I’m no scientist, but I do know whales are mammals. However, it’s not uncommon to find them called “fish” in 19th Century writings. What’s going on?

Today’s blog post explores some of the origins of 19th Century names for whales, briefly discusses the catalog of whales found in Moby Dick, and reviews the differences between toothed and baleen whales.

Whale – An American 19th Century Definition

The 1828 Noah Webster Dictionary defines “whale” as “This fish is named from roundness, or from rolling: The general name of an order of animals inhabiting the ocean, arranged in zoology under the of Cetacea, and belonging to the class Mammalia in the Linnean system. The common whale is of the genus Balaena. It is the largest animal of which we have any account, and probably the largest in the world. It is sometimes ninety feet in length in the northern seas, and in the torrid zone much larger. The whale furnishes us with oil, whalebone, etc.”

I like to refer to the first edition of Webster Dictionary when seeking to understand words in their 19th Century American meaning. Sure, most people didn’t study dictionaries or “talk like dictionaries” but it can be helpful for understanding the background and meaning attached to the words in a different era.

Did you notice anything odd in the definition? Yep, the beast is called both a fish and a mammal. Notice that it’s assigned to the mammal class scientifically, but seems to be called a fish generally. (Whales are mammals, not fish. But I suppose we can forgive the folks who called all ocean swimming creatures generically “fish.”)

Leviathan or Fish?

Where did the name “Leviathan” come from for a whale? The Bible. Whether influenced by Quakerism, Puritanism, Congregationalism, or some other form of Christian Religion, the New England region was a religious atmosphere. “Leviathan” is a term found in the Old Testament book of Job for a very large water dwelling creature. (See Job 41). While not all modern-day Bible scholars are convinced this passage describes a whale, it is easy to understand why whales got called leviathans and the passage was compared to whaling. Look at these descriptions from Job:

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn? Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears? (Job 41:1-2, 7)

Fish. How did they call a whale a fish? Why do we find accounts of “whale fisheries?” Come on – whales have blowholes and breathe air. (Anyone remember the call “thar she blows”?) It seems simple to our 21st Century brains, but remember we’ve probably read books, seen documentaries, or maybe visited marine parks since we were kids; and scientific classification is much more incorporated into our elementary science curriculum. Science wasn’t a requirement in most common grade schools during the early 19th Century; just learning to read, write, and do simple arithmetic was a good starting place.

And if the culture and society generally referred to swimming oceanic creatures as “fish” – well, then a whale was just a big fish. (There might also have been some direction from the Bible again. The King James translation refers to the creature that swallowed Jonah as a “fish.” Just another thought…)

The “Scientific” Catalog in Moby Dick

Have you read Moby Dick by Herman Melville? (Tell us in a comment! Next week’s blog post will be all about the book, the legend, and the facts.)

Well, if you’ve made it through the book – cover to cover – you’ll know that Melville uses a 19th Century novel writing trick. (Hugo uses it in Les Miserables too.) Just about the time you’ve settled into the story and can’t wait to see what happens next, you’ll get to chapter after chapter of explanation. Yes, it’s explanation that adds to the story, but it has a tendency to ramble and philosophize a bit and basically put the story itself “on hold.” (Seriously, only a classic could get away with this and still be printed and sold decades later.)

Herman Melville wrote about different types of whales in his novel “Moby Dick”

One of those explanation interludes is all about the whales. (It’s Chapter 32, in case you want to look it up.) And he proceeds to classify and describe quite a few of the whales and porpoises encountered by whalers. In later chapters, there is extensive detail about the sperm whale since that type of whale become a main character in the story.

Toothed Whales

Whales are usually divided into two categories – whales with teeth and whales with baleen.

Toothed whales have – you guessed it – teeth. These whales range from porpoise size (appoximately 4.5 feet) to the sperm whale (averaging 66 feet). They eat other mammals, squid, fish, and other carnivorous snacks. Their range is world-wide, and major areas and migration routes varying from species to species.

The pursuit of the larger toothed whales prompted the modifications and developments of the whaling vessels and voyage whaling.

Sketch showing baleen in the top of the whale’s mouth.

Baleen Whales

Baleen Whales have cartilage in their mouths to filter little krill and fish out of the water; that cartilage is called baleen or in 19th Century terms, “whalebone.”

These whales range in size from 2o feet to 112 feet, depending on the species. The largest whales in the world – blue whales – are baleen whales. Each species has different feeding habits, but all into that filteration through the baleen. Like the toothed whale, their range and migratory paths also vary depending on their food source and species.

Interestingly, these whales were among the first to be hunted along the American coast (right whales) and new species were found in the Arctic waters in the mid and later part of the century.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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4 Responses to The Whales: Leviathans and “Fish”

  1. Meg Groeling says:

    This is so cool and arcane!

  2. Marshall Ayers says:

    Yes, I’ve read Moby Dick, cover to cover.

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