A whale of a time
I went to a party a little while ago and had a Whale of a time. By that I meant that I had a great time, a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
But why a whale?
The obvious answer is that the Blue Whale is the largest animal on planet Earth and so to use it as a superlative or, as the grammarians call it, an intensifier is to indicate that it is as good as it can possibly get. Whilst its sense and figurative use have no element of mystery about them, it does appear that the phrase has changed over time. Indeed, in the early 19th century you may have encountered someone talking about a whaler of a time.
So we find in a report in The Day, a Glaswegian newspaper, on 28th March 1832, “they fib by equivocation – they don’t come plump out, with a tremendous whaler of a fib, but seek to do it by equivocation and confusion of words and ideas, but, in any way, it is all fibbing.” A whaler was a specialised vessel designed for catching and slaughtering whales for their blubber and processing them. Schele De Vere, in his 1872 book Americanisms, confirms the rationale behind using anything to do with a whale as a superlative; “That the huge size of a whale should have led sailors, and after their example others also, to speak of any man or event of unusual and imposing proportions as a whaler, seems natural enough.”
Later in the 19th century a variant emerged, whale on, which was used to express the concept that someone was really enthusiastic about something or using a modernism, big on. An example of this phrase is to be found in Archibald Marshall’s Peter Binney: Undergraduate, published in 1899; “Of course I’ve got to keep up my authority, you know,” pursued Mr. Binney. “It won’t do to slack the rein yet awhile.” “By George, no,” said Dizzy. “I should be a whale on parental authority myself if I were in your place.” Perhaps a clearer use of the phrase appeared in William McFee’s Aliens – a book about immigrants rather than creatures from other planets, published in 1918; “I don’t think it was all gallantry that made me do what I did. I’d never been a whale on that sort of thing.”
Contemporaneously, our phrase, whale of, emerged and if Willard C Gore is to be believed, it owed its origin to student slang. At times the argot of the younger generation can be bewildering at times but Gore helpfully provided a glossary of Student Slang which was published in the monthly student magazine of Michigan University in December 1895. He provides a string of usages and meanings ranging from whale as “a person who is a prodigy either physically or intellectually; one who is exceptionally strong, skilful or brilliant” as in “he’s a whale at tennis” and “he’s a whale in mathematics.” Other usages suggested by Gore include “something exceptionally large, as a whale of a procession; jolly as a whale of a time, or severe as a whale of an examination.”
Most of these usages have slipped away into obscurity but whale of a time seemed to escape from the confines of the grove of academe. The Manitoba Morning Free Press on 21st June 1901 reported, “but we had a whale of a time rolling down rocks.” This is the sense that has survived into the 21st century.
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