What is a Cachalot?

A couple days ago, while reading Marco Polo’s account of his travels, I came across an interesting word: cachalot.

I had no idea what it meant, but Wikipedia – as always – held the answer. A cachalot is a sperm whale.

I love this word.

On the face of things, it’s completely useless. It’s so obscure that almost nobody will understand it, so obscure that Firefox insists even now that I’ve made a spelling error. It means exactly the same thing as “sperm whale,” so it’s completely redundant. This is exactly the kind of word that would be first on the chopping block in a newspeak regime.

But say it out loud – I mean actually try it. “KASH-uh-loh.” (It can also be KASH-uh-lot, but I think we can all agree that the long “o” and silent “t” make it sound 30% suaver and 45% more debonair.)

KASH-uh-loh. Cachalot.

It comes from French, of course, though its precise origins are hidden in the murky depths – much like the creatures themselves. One theory is that it’s based on an old French word for “tooth.” But my go-to source for etymology hasn’t even heard of it.

Some folks are so enamored with the name (and so dissatisfied with the current term) that they’ve launched a campaign to replace “sperm whale” entirely. Personally I think my time might be better spent on other causes, but there’s no denying the word has a poetic power.

And when I look at the animal itself…


…I can certainly appreciate the majesty of a word like “cachalot.”

What useless word do you enjoy?


11 responses to “What is a Cachalot?

  1. I find it difficult to call any word “useless”. Since starting a word journal about seven months ago, I’ve learned lots of words that mean the exact same thing as another, more common word (like “ebullience” instead of “exuberance”, for example) that I still find myself using quite often, just because I like it better. That makes me loathe to speak of them as “useless”. The words used reflect on the speaker, after all.

    Also, out of curiosity, I took a few minutes to search for the word in Moby Dick, (I can’t imagine how I ever lived without my ereader) hoping and fearing that I had overlooked it before. I found it only four times. Once in the extracts, at the beginning, twice as spoken in French, and only once in a normal sentence. I am somewhat disappointed, when “sperm whale” is used over two hundred times.

    But while looking for the book in my library, I saw the French translation of Moby Dick and decided to give it a quick search too. 356 times… WTF.

  2. A fun fact. in Russian the word Cachalot is alive and well. It’s used mainly in children’s literature and I always thought that it just means a giant whale.

    There is a word in Russian for whale (kit) but the word Cachalot brings to mind a monstrously large whale that would feature in a story where it would eat a ship with all it’s crew or something of that nature.

    pronounced ka-sha-lot (Кашалот)

    • Very cool! I’m trying to think whether English has a word equivalent to the “monstrous whale” meaning. Maybe “leviathan”?

      And interesting that, while Russian and English both imported “cachalot” from French, they took it in subtly different directions…

  3. Cachalots featured predominantly in jules vernes’ 20 000 leagues under the sea during an episode where Captain Nemo attempted to protect a group of whales from what he considered creatures that should be eradicated

      • I remember reading about them when I was a kid, and terrified. Had not idea what they were, remember the author mentioning that they were “toothed”…and from them on for years always imagined them as being toothed squid. Now, years later, realized that I confused two parts of the book…and that the cachalots were simply sperm whales that were attaching other whales, whereas the squid episode was another part of the story entirely.

  4. There is actually a chapter called Cachalots and Whales:

    “You spoke of the cachalot as a small creature. I have heard of gigantic ones. They are intelligent cetacea. It is said of some that they cover themselves with seaweed and fucus, and then are taken for islands. People encamp upon them, and settle there; lights a fire——”

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