The Origin of “Moby Dick”

Where did Herman Melville get the strange, marvelous name of the leviathan at the center of his strange, marvelous novel Moby-Dick? The name of the great white whale derives from  an 1839 article by Jeremiah Reynolds, “Mocha Dick: or The White Whale of the Pacific” (originally published in Knickerbocker Magazine). As the editors of Melville.org point out though (and thanks be unto them for all their hard, excellent work), how “Mocha Dick” morphed into “Moby Dick” remains “some strange piece of hermetic Melvillean arcana.” From Reynolds’s article

But to return to Mocha Dick — which, it may be observed, few were solicitous to do, who had once escaped from him. This renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, was an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature, as exhibited in the case of the Ethiopian Albino, a singular consequence had resulted — he was white as wool! Instead of projecting his spout obliquely forward, and puffing with a short, convulsive effort, accompanied by a snorting noise, as usual with his species, he flung the water from his nose in a lofty, perpendicular, expanded volume, at regular and somewhat distant intervals; its expulsion producing a continuous roar, like that of vapor struggling from the safety-valve of a powerful steam engine. Viewed from a distance, the practised eye of the sailor only could decide, that the moving mass, which constituted this enormous animal, was not a white cloud sailing along the horizon. On the spermaceti whale, barnacles are rarely discovered; but upon the head of this lusus naturae, they had clustered, until it became absolutely rugged with the shells. In short, regard him as you would, he was a most extraordinary fish; or, in the vernacular of Nantucket, “a genuine old sog”, of the first water.

4 thoughts on “The Origin of “Moby Dick””

  1. I have been told that the words Moby Dick was derived from the Cantonese words for “unbeatable enemy”. I do not know if this is true but perhaps someone who speaks Cantonese can shed some light on this.

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  2. More likely the sailors set around at the pub and on ship talking about the big white “Dick” that was a terror in their fish stories as they had a little too much brew.

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