What does the name of the narwhal, one of the oddest animals on Earth, literally mean?


This blog always relishes a chance to write about the intersection of notable creatures and notable words. For example, when an event created an excuse to write about the zany zedonk (what the heck is that? Find out here.) celebration ensued. Now, one of the few creatures that can top the zedonk for linguistic and zoological oddness has surfaced in the media. That creature of legend is the narwhal.

If you’ve been on Google lately, you may have played with the interactive version of their logo that honors the 183rd birthday of science fiction pioneer Jules Verne, author of, among other classics, Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea and From the Earth to the Moon. Part of the logo depicts what looks like a whale with a unicorn horn. That’s not fiction — that’s a narwhal.

This relative of the whale possesses the unique characteristic of a tusk that grows out of its head. The tusk is actually a giant tooth, massive in males and much smaller in females. Its purpose remains somewhat mysterious, but the generally-accepted explanation is that of sexual display, like the feathers of a peacock.

The origin of the name “narwhal” suggests the terror that these rare and unusual creatures must have inspired in ancient sailors. Nar is an Old Norse word for “corpse,” apparently tied to the weird whiteness of the Narwhal’s body. The scientific name bestows a bit more decency: Monodon monoceros, Greek for “one-toothed unicorn.”

Another real-life “unicorn” exists in Asia. Learn the name of this amazing, rare creature, here.

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