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I’ve talked before about JRR Tolkien and his association with The Oxford English Dictionary.
During his time there they were working on words starting with W, and one of the words he worked on was walrus.
The OED online in its newsletters section shows an image of some of JRR’s hand written notes concerning walrus and it is evident that he pondered over the word for some time. It is his work that is still reflected in the current OED entry.
There we learn that a walrus was called a walrus by 1655 but that as an animal it had been known long before and appeared with other names in the writings of Alfred the Great back around 893. At that time in Old English it was called not walrus but horschwael which we today might pronounce “horse whale.”
By reversing these words into “whale horse” we can see how the word walrus came about.
A walrus with its whiskered face, huge tusks, and baglike body doesn’t look much like a horse but JRR goes on to speculate that there could have been confusion around what the name was in Old Norse since their word for a certain kind of whale was similar to “horse whale” and similar to their word for walrus.
An alternate name for a walrus that shows up in a few dictionaries—OED and the American Heritage Dictionary for example—is sea horse.
Morse was yet another name that appeared before walrus and seems to have spread to other languages only to drop out of use in English. This word too is brought back to horse since it seems to have been formed on mo-horse.
So even though we might think of a sea horse as one of those little fishes with a horsey head and a curly tail—a species in which babies are hatched by the father—clearly people in the past didn’t make this association.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.