"Wail" or "whale" (as in "thrash")?

In a recent post –

I always thought that if you were talking about thrashing or beating someone, you were whaling on them. But more and more, I’ve been seeing the spelling wail.

Which is correct?

… and it says that the proper spelling is wale, with whale as a variant.

But wail is still wrong.

Coupla possibilities, but “wail” isn’t either of them.

  1. “whale” can mean to strike vigorously, or defeat decisively
  2. “wale” can mean to mark with welts

I’m reminded of an interchange I read somewhere…

McCoy: Spock, you shut up or I’ll whale the tar out of you!
Spock: Doctor, I assure you that my body contains no petroleum products; in addition, I have to question the efficacy of a threat that attempts to invoke a member of the cetaecea as a verb.

That’s not a McCoy/Spock interchange – I think it’s from “Bloodhype,” by Alan Dean Foster

“Wale” is another word for “welt.” To wale on someone is to thrash them to the point of raising welts.

Sadly, caning was banned in New South Wales in 1986. So the only wales down there now are Old South Wales.

“Wale” is also used to describe the raised stripes on corduroy fabric.

…unless they brought along a banshee.

And, BTW, I’ve heard the word (pronounced “whale”) only once in my life, in the “Our Gang” short Mush and Milk (1933), the evil hag headmistress (reprising her role in this remake of the earlier silent short Bring Home the Turkey (1927) threatens to “whale” the kids if they don’t start moving faster. The actress, Louise Emmons seemed to have had a lock on the “evil old hag at large” roles of the 1920s and 1930s.

I don’t recall the exact phrasing, I didn’t cough up the forty bucks for a membership, and I don’t know where my copy of Finest News Reporting is, but The Onion once had an article about Six dudes that came out of nowhere and started whaling on this one dude.

There was a post here recently (Why is there the “wh”?)where someone asserted that the wh- sound at the beginning of a word was obsolescent, and that most people in the US don’t pronounce it, and instead just pronounce all these words with just the w- sound.

I think this whole thread proves that one wrong, since as far as I know, the only difference in pronouncing “wale” and “whale” is the aspirated-w sound.

So someone can “wail” because someone else “waled” on them.


Shoudn’t that be “cudgel?”

Dunno what you guys are on about with your fancy schmancy etymology, but rock-and-rollers wail on guitars all the time. No sense in fighting it, they’re going to win this one.

But in that case, they are wailing, as in making a loud, high-pitched sound. They’re not beating their instruments.

Uh …

That doesn’t prove a thing. There are tons of homophones in English–i.e. they’re spelled differently but pronounced the same. Think of a sentence like “She has a birthmark shaped like an arc” vs. “She has a birthmark shaped like an ark.” Are you going to argue that “c” and “k” are pronounced differently, since the words mean two different things and the only distinguishing factor is the final consonant?

I speak a Californian dialect of American English and I definitely don’t pronounce “whale” any differently from “wale” or “wail.”

Oops, that was my error - I gathered that the thread was referring to the difference between “whale” and “wale” in the spoken form instead of the written form. Earl Snake-Hips Tucker was referring to what he heard, but I guess he was the only one.

Yes, I know that there are homophones, but I was simply unaware that “whale” and “wale” would be homophones to some people, since to me they clearly have different sounds at the beginning.

“Wail” has similar shadings of meaning to “whale” for musicians (in my case, band and marching band). There, you were said to “wail” if you played the lead, loudly, clearly, and cleanly, and esp. if you played a brass instrument like the trumpet that could be heard very clearly above the total sound mix, as it were. The musician who “wailed” was figuratively grasping that musical score, mastering it totally, and even showing off a bit.

Although I suppose an argument could be made for “whaling” with a brass instrument if the sound gets gurggly from an egregious accumulation of spit… :eek: …or if the tuba section beats up on the clarinetists.