February 18, 2006

Moby-Dick vocabulary, i

I read Moby-Dick very badly back in high school. Which is to say I only read probably 1/4 of the text, and my selection included the beginning and the end. Now, because I’ve received a lovely lovely copy for my birthday, I have the urge to do it right. Excessively right – no proceeding until I’m sure I know what everything means. “Means” in the most literal sense. Like I have to understand all the words. Not holding myself to a high enough standard in this respect, I believe, has been a major impediment to my enjoyment of many books. I am not alone in having suffered from the white-lie self-delusion of “okay sure fine I get the idea.”

So I’m writing down everything that I need to look up. I expect this to take about a year, maybe more. Actually, I expect to abandon this effort before I come anywhere near completing it. Usually when I start doomed OCD projects like this, their abortive fruits end up lost in the bowels of my personal computer (abortive -> fruits -> bowels?), but now that I have this lovely forum, you’re all beneficiaries. And you can share in the shame of it all, too.

The following will be incomprehensible without a copy of Moby-Dick. Like this one. Or this one. Read along with me, at my sub-glacial pace! Until I quit!

Here you go, internet.


usher, n.
4. An assistant to a schoolmaster or head-teacher; an under-master, assistant-master. Now rare.

Richard Hakluyt (1552-1616), author of several important works on travel and exploration, including The Principall Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589/1598-1600). Melville’s quote comes from this section on Iceland (text version / original edition), where it would seem to actually be from the pen of one Arngrímur Jónsson (1568-1648). The language in question is, as you might have guessed, Icelandic.

Richardson’s Dictionary
A New Dictionary of the English Language, by Charles Richardson, published in 1837. Richardson’s dictionary had no definitions, only quotations. In this sense, a precursor to the OED.

Incidentally, neither the current Merriam-Webster nor the current OED specifically mentions derivation from “roundness,” “to roll,” or “to wallow” in its etymology for whale.

PEHEE-NUEE-NUEE, Erromangoan.

Fegee is obviously just Melville’s spelling of Fiji, by which he means the language Fijian. Erromangoan is now Erromangan, a language of Erromango, in Vanuatu, one of the most language-dense nations in the world. Melville’s source for these is presumably personal experience, and no doubt things have changed a lot since he was there, but Melville’s words seem to derive from Polynesian languages, and Erromangan and Fijian seem to be rather different beasts. But frankly it’s a complicated mess down there and I’m not about to work it out.

But I will go a bit further, because I just came across some guy’s textual notes, apparently for a forthcoming edition of Moby-Dick, hiding in the Google cache, and here’s what he says:

Etymology: Melville’s list of non-English language words for “whale” is not entirely correct. The Hebrew word is particularly garbled. Both American and British editions print the letters nh (nun and he), or “hen” (as read from right to left), which has a number of meanings, none of which is “whale” or “leviathan.” HM’s source was no doubt Kitto’s Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature, which gives the letters nt (nun and tav), or “tan,” as “whale,” even though the actual Hebrew word for whale is “tanin” or “tanim.” Chances are HM intended Kitto’s erroneous word “tan” but his printer gave him “hen.” The NN [Northwestern-Newberry, 1988] edition corrects the text to “tan”; however, LCE [Longman Critical Edition, forthcoming!] retains the original to underscore this textual problem. … The Greek in both American and British versions is rendered in a non-standard typeface and seems to begin with the letter chi; however, it is, in fact, a kappa, which is proper. LCE follows this original Greek transcription. It corrects “whœl” to “whæl” for the Anglo-Saxon entry. However, it does not correct “Hvalt” (Danish for “arched”) to “Hval” (“whale”), nor HM’s confusion of Dutch for German, nor the repetition of “Whale” for the Icelandic (instead of “Hvalur”); all of which are revised in the NN edition. The Fegee and Erromangoan words are either sailor talk or HM’s invention; the Polynesian for whale is actually “pahua” or “palaoa.”

First of all: guy who wrote that, if find yourself reading this and you want me to take down your as-yet-unpublished notes that you were foolish enough to leave where Google could find them, just leave a comment and I’ll be glad to do so!

Second of all, I am reading from the beautiful University of California Edition, which identifies itself as a sort of preliminary version of the “NN” edition. However, for the Hebrew, I see chet dalet, which is seriously off the mark, apparently a second generation of typesetting error by someone who doesn’t know from Hebrew. However, contrary to that guy’s notes, my research (and instinct) suggests that “tanim” is the plural and “tan” is indeed the correct singular for, say, Jonah’s whale. No?

My edition also, incidentally, seems to have fallen for the Greek error mentioned. It seems to have χήτος instead of κήτος. Hm. I think. Or maybe it’s just a direct reproduction of the confusing font from the original. You can see what I’m seeing by “searching inside the book” on Amazon. (Search for “nuee.”)

Third of all: In chapter 40 of Omoo, Melville writes:

All over these seas, the word “nuee” is significant of quantity. Its repetition is like placing ciphers at the right hand of a numeral; the more places you carry it out to, the greater the sum.

This is clearly the Polynesian word now written as “Nui” meaning “big” or “great.” And though I can’t find any “pekee” or “pehee,” I do find “pakake” meaning whale. And also (same link) “paikea,” a whale and/or a mythical sea monster. This is also the name of the protagonist in the hit Maori film Whale Rider (2002)! So anyway, I don’t think “sailor talk or HM’s invention” is fair at all – I’m willing to buy that Melville was really trying to get it right but ended up with pehee-nuee-nuee and pekee-nuee-nuee in his attempt to say “really, really big sea monster” in two variants of Polynesian (which Fijian and Erromangan aren’t, quite).

Okay. I have now so totally read page viii of Moby-Dick and nobody could reasonably claim otherwise. Yeah yeah, I thought about it, too. Babel; mortality; civilization; cannibals. Man, language, the eternal. I gotcha. All very Dave Eggers of him to put it on the “Etymology” page, too.

Just vii+576 left to go!


  1. I got about 2/3 through Moby Dick before I realized I had ceased caring about whales and just went back to finishing The Sopranos Cookbook. However, thoughout it all, Madeline continually urged me on and had various tidbits of wisdom for my seafaring journey that I must admit were fairly interesting. So, if you’re going to keep up this venture, I suggest you give her a call — I’m sure she’d gladly talk to you for hours about that silly book.

    Posted by Mary on |
  2. Now is the time, Mary, to do it right! Come with me as I lead you every step of the way with vocabulary words that you already know, and internet links to obscure texts that are even less appealing than Moby-Dick itself! If this were your website and I were reading it, and you said you were going to chapter-by-chapter your way through War and Peace or something, you can bet I’d play along. Forget Madeline: deep down you regret quitting. I know you do. Don’t you? Maybe you don’t.

    Posted by broomlet on |
  3. Finally,Ive come across an item I can relate to. I experienced my first reading of Melville’s Leviathan while Sarah was giving birth to my first child…Todd…. I also skipped over some not fully understandable words…whether Latin, English, or what have you . I couldn’t “waste” time then to learn what Herman was trying to get across to me. It had to wait fifty or more years to give me a second chance. and the occassion was another addition to the Boroson klan. ( I cant reccall at this time exactly who was making his entry.) But, just like you, I opened the huge tome with similar thoughts invading my thinking process. I was going to finally learn what Melville was trying to tell me. I read the book much slower, with lots of reference maaterial, within my perusal area.But much like your experience, the lateral moves to broaden my area of whale knowledge becamme more infrequent. I did get through the book . And maybe I do know somewhat more after the second reading … But it was a memorable experience , which your blog happily brought back to my memory.
    Our paths havent crossed in many years, but I do keep aprized of your doings through your Dad.

    Posted by Elihu Boroson on |
  4. Hm, maybe you’re right. I *would* like to be able to brag to people that I’ve fully read and understood Moby Dick. Though I don’t actually have access to, well, books in English right now. If anybody feels charitable and would like to send me a copy, I promise I’ll give it another go. Also, wrap it between two packs of microwavable popcorn. That will, uh, help me to appreciate whales better.

    Posted by Mary on |

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