Whales, antelopes, monsters, & pigs: a deep dive into the many names for the orca

This week, Sea World announced that it’s ending its controversial captive orca breeding programOrca, killer whale, blackfish: this inspiring cetacean has known many names in English. Let’s take a deep dive into their origins.


Popularly, the orca goes by the “killer whale,” which has been in use, often just as “killer” early on, since the 1720s. In spite of the ferocity that inspired the animal’s name, many, knowing the sea mammal as a highly intelligent, social, and matrilineal creature, have objected to the murderous moniker of killer whale, working to popularize its scientific name, orca, instead.

For marine biologists, the orca is the Orcinus orca, previously Delphinus orca or Orca gladiator, again suggesting the bellicose behaviors the creature’s names have historically highlighted. For this scientific usage of orca, we can thank the Father of Taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, who looked to Latin for his nomenclature system in the 18th century. (We can also thank Linnaeus for lemur and larva, whose spooky roots I explored this past Halloween.) In general, however, orca has been swimming English waters since at least the 1650s.

In Latin, orca refers to a “kind of whale.” My sources aren’t much more specific on what kind of whale, exactly, but, in the record, orca has named a variety of fierce and formidable cetaceans. Perhaps orca displayed a similar generality in Latin.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and philologist Ernest Klein take Latin’s orca back to the Greek ὄρυξ (oryx). As far as I can tell, this oryx named a “pickax” as well as a kind of North African “antelope,”  related to a verb for “to dig up.” English, too, has oryx, so naming a genus of antelopes whose horns are indeed very long, straight, and pickax-like.

While the OED doesn’t further elaborate on the semantics of Greek’s oryx, Klein comments that this oryx also denoted a kind of whale. Perhaps the orca’s dorsal fin was seen to to cut through the surface of the water like an pickax? Both sources, moreover, observe that Latin’s “whale” orca was influenced by another orca in the language, this one a kind of “vat” or “vessel.”

Does the orca’s dorsal fin resemble a pickax? Image from freeimages.com/photo/killer-whale-1466891.

Latin’s orca inspired Italian’s orca and French’s orque, which variously named large, whale-like, and often fabulous sea monsters. These three together, the OED comments, influenced English’s orc, an earlier name for orca. The dictionary dates it to the 16th-century, perhaps as early as the 1520s.

English has other orcs, however, though bearing no etymological relation to the whale. As a name for the vicious, ogre-like monsters, the English orc derives from the Italian orco, a “man-eating giant,” from the Latin Orcus, one of the language’s name for “Hell” or its gods. Old English also had an orc; this one meant “demon,” which in part inspired Tolkien when he popularized these creatures in his fantasies. The Old English orc appears to be unrelated to the Latin, though they resonate devilishly well. Our word ogre may also be derived from Latin’s Orcus.

There is still yet an earlier name for this largest of the dolphins and its kin: the grampus, which roams similar waters, date-wise, to orc. As is, grampus looks like a Latin word. It is, but we’ll have to keep swimming to find it. Through quite the series of sound changes in English and French before it, grampus ultimately derives from the Medieval Latin craspicis, literally a “great fish” or “fat fish,” as the OED glosses it; craspicis joins crassus, “thick” and piscis, “fat.”

Speaking of piscis, sound changes, and dolphins, the  origin of English porpoise can be hard to see clearly through the choppy, murky water of language evolution. For “dolphin,” later Latin had porcopiscis, “pig fish,” joining that same piscis with porcus, “pig.” The earlier word in English, though, was mereswine, or “sea pig.” Oh, what wondrous creatures there are in the ocean of language!

But lest I forget, there is one other name for the orca that I can’t neglect: blackfish, inspired, obviously, by the animal’s appearance. Hence, Blackfish, the powerful exposé of Sea World’s captive orcas, which, in no small part, helped inspire the pressure on Sea World to end its captive breeding program.

The orca may have many names, but I think we can all agree to call Sea World’s decision a very good one.

m ∫ r ∫


16 thoughts on “Whales, antelopes, monsters, & pigs: a deep dive into the many names for the orca

  1. Very interesting post! The Irish term for whale is kind of interesting too. It’s míol mór. The mór is simple enough – it just means big. The míol originally meant an animal of any kind, but in modern Irish it’s usually a tiny animal like a louse or a midge or a bedbug. In other words, a whale is a ‘big louse!’ I believe the Welsh term is very similar, morfil. If you made a compound word out of mór and míol you would get mórmhíol, which would be pronounced moreveel. However, the mor in the Welsh word is ‘sea’, I think. Their word for big is mawr. Can we start a campaign to save the mereswine? What a great word!


    1. Thank you; I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      “Miol mór”: fascinating! Any thoughts or insights on why “miol” was narrowed in sense over time to “louse”? I could imagine a sort of creature > critter sort of deal.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I think critter is a very good analogy. I think another analogy is the English deer, which seems to have originally referred to animals in general, as in German Tiergarten. In both Irish and English, the original terms have been supplanted by words derived from Latin – animal in English and ainmhí in Irish.


      2. I think that would be the same development that happen in Welsh mirroring the Irish, a creature/critter deal? In Welsh ‘mil’ as a stand-alone word is marked as obsolete or literary in its original meaning of generic ‘animal’ and only survives in compound words such as morfil “whale” (Middle Irish: “muirmíl”), milgi “greyhound” (Old Irish: “mílchú”), udfil “hyena”, cnofil “rodent” etc. In modern Welsh ‘mil’ has been relegated by the Latinate anifail (“animal”), creadur (“creature”) and bwystfil (“beast”).

        Liked by 1 person

      3. There’s also “hiena” in modern Welsh dated as 1588 which probably came into the language from biblical references at the time the Bible was translated into either English or Welsh.


  2. Names for ‘killer whale’ in other languages focus on the appearance of the whale’s characteristic dorsal fin such as the synonym for “orque” (orca) in French “épaulard” derived from both “épaule” (shoulder) and “espaart” which meant sword (épée) in Old French. Both German (Schwertwal) and Dutch (zwaardwalvis) have names for killer whales combining the words ‘sword’ and ‘whale’ and there are other examples in different languages employing words of the same ‘sword’ and ‘fin’ comparison.


    1. Very interesting. This would seem to further my theory that the Greek-rooted “pickax” of its name, as least according to the OED and Klein, refers to the dorsal fin.


  3. So interesting! I really enjoy your etymological wanderings. ‘Mereswine’ made me think straight away of ‘Meerschweinchen’ (‘sea piglet’) – the German word for a guinea pig. When I was growing up in Switzerland, the story we were told (I think) was that the guinea pigs were brought from across the sea by Columbus, hence ‘Meer’, and made a sound like a pig but were smaller, hence the diminutive ‘Schweinchen’. I had no idea of the old Latin and English words for dolphins and porpoises – I wonder if the two terms developed independently of each other then, since the animals they describe are so different?! (‘Porcopiscis’ incidentally also made me think of porcupine, which in German is a ‘Stachelschwein’… ‘spine’ or ‘prickle’ pig… so many pigs in the German animal world 🙂 )

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A “Stachelschwein”: How wonderful! As for their development, it’s possible that German, say, calqued Latin. That is, Latin’s “pig fish” translated, word for word, into the corresponding German word’s for “pig fish.” But I think it’s likely that they developed independently, as it’s fairly common and widespread, as far as I know, to name one animal in terms of another. This especially happens with use of “pig.” And thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s an old book published in 1922 but in my copy of Ancient Man in Britain by Donald Alexander Mackenzie it says in a footnote under the discussion of the etymology of the Orkney Islands off the north east coast of Scotland that ‘the Latin orca is a Celtic loan-word’.


      1. Just thought I’d post the relevant passages from the book I mentioned in the previous post.
        Ancient Man in Britain by Donald Alexander Mackenzie (1922)

        Orkney enshrines the tribal name of the boar – perhaps that of the ancient boar-god represented on a standing stone near Inverness with the sun symbol above its head.

        The salmon was reverenced also because it was a migratory fish. Its comings and goings were regular as the seasons, and seemed to be controlled by the ruler of the elements with whom it was intimately connected. One of its old Gaelic names was “orc” (pig). It was evidently connected with that animal; the sea-pig was possibly a form of deity. The porpoise was aso an orc*.

        (Footnote) *So was a whale. The Latin orca is a Celtic loan-word. Milton uses the Celtic whale name in the line: “The haunt of seals, and orca, and sea-mews’ clang.” (Paradise Lost. Book XI, line 835)

        Orkney retains the name of the Orcs (Boars), a Pictish tribe.


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