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.

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