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.)
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?