Whaling May Result in Weals

By Maeve Maddox

Commenting on the Whelps are Puppies post, Anthony Patterson, MD had this to add to our vocabulary for talking about raised places on the skin:

Regarding “whelps” your article is of course quite correct. ¬†However, in medical school, I was taught it was an inappropriate substitution for “wheal” which is “a more or less round and evanescent elevation of the skin”with the emphasis on “evanscent” as it is a sign of urticaria [hives]” (Tabor’s Medical Dictionary).

In writing the post I failed to mention the familiar word weal; the medical term wheal is new to me.

Apparently both weal and wheal are related to wale and whale (in the sense of whipping or beating).

Wale comes from an Old English word meaning “ridge,” as in The knight rode over the ridge. Later it came to mean “ridge made on flesh by a lash.” In the 13th century the wooden platform made to hold mounted guns was called the gonne walle (gunwale). In the 16th century the word wale came to be used in the manufacture of textiles to describe the ridges in a fabric like corduroy.

Weal, in the sense of “a raised mark on skin” is documented from 1821 as “an alteration of wale.” (NOTE: The word weal has other meanings which are worthy of a post to themselves.)

wheal, “a mark made on the skin by a whip” is documented from 1808. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, wheal is

probably an alteration of wale, possibly by confusion with weal “welt,” and obsolete wheal “pimple, pustule” (1440), from O.E. verb hwelian “to form pus, bring to a head.”

As pointed out by our reader, in modern medical use a wheal is “a flat, usually circular, hard elevation of the skin, especially that which is characteristic of urticaria.” According to the OED, the wheal is so called because it resembles the “wheal” raised on the skin by a blow.”

The earliest example in the OED of the verb to whale in the sense of beating severely is documented from 1790:

1790 Grose, Provincial Glossary: whale, to beat with a horsewhip or pliant stick.
1801 G. Hanger, Life: Whaleing [sic] a gentleman is but a vulgar revenge.
1884 Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn: He used to always whale me when he was sober and could get his hands on me.

The OED also has an entry for wale as a verb meaning “to mark (the flesh) with wales or weals” and gives this example from 1634: O my blessed Saviour, was it not enough that thy sacred body was stripped of thy garments, and waled with bloudy stripes?

A dark side to this etymological foray is that the evolution of these words took place in times when whipping was such a regular event that most people had seen what it does to a person’s back.

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2 Responses to “Whaling May Result in Weals”

  • spike1

    From the definition above it sounds like another word for “welt”
    Imagine they’re all just corruptions of the same base word?

  • PreciseEdit

    Always enjoy learning new words (new to me, that is). The history of word meanings is tied to our history as a society. Thanks for the interesting post.

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