Monday, July 1, 2013

Apple #643: There She Blows

I have a request! Daily Apple reader Matt Kish* asked me the following:

My question is, why did whalers shout "Thar she blows!" when sighting a whale, regardless of the actual gender of the whale itself? To the best of my knowledge, both male and female whales were hunted and killed. This question was brought up at a Stump the Scholars panel at the Moby-Dick Marathon in New Bedford in January, and even the collected Melville scholars were unable to come up with a decisive answer.
I'm shaking in my apple-shoes a bit at this question because if even the Moby-Dick scholars don't know the answer, I'm guessing I might have a hard time finding it out.  But who knows? Maybe I could get lucky and come across something obscure.

[*normally I change the names of people who ask me questions to protect their identity and also have some fun with giving my friends exotic names. I didn't in this instance because Matt's book is really cool, and I wanted to give you a little nudge about it and tell you that there is no way I ever would have finished reading Moby-Dick without it.]

I have some theories about why it's "she" in "There she blows," but as any good English lit student knows, the best place to start is with the text itself.

Here's the passage in Moby-Dick where the phrase occurs:

[chapter 133] while but two thirds of the way aloft, and while peering ahead through the horizontal vacancy between the main-top-sail and top-gallant-sail, he [Ahab] raised a gull-like cry in the air. “There she blows!—there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!”
Ahab knows Moby Dick well enough to know that he's male.  So why say "There she blows?"  Why not say "There he blows?"

The spray, or blow, from a sperm whale.  This is what the whalers would keep their eyes peeled to see, even before the body of the whale might be visible.
(Photo from Whale Spotter)

Theory 1: It's Only Because Ahab is Insane; Then Everyone Copied Him

Could this be a peculiarity of Ahab's or Melville's or anyway of this book's?  Could it be that Moby-Dick gained such popularity that we now think that every nineteenth-century whaler said this, when in real life nobody else said this?

Answer: No.  It was a common phrase at the time.  Here's some evidence.

In Reverend Henry Cheever's The Whale and His Captors (1853), they use the same cry:
"For the first time in our now ten weeks' passage from the Hawaiian Islands, on this New Zealand Cruising Ground, we heard, day before yesterday, that life-kindling sound to a weary whaleman, THERE SHE BLOWS! The usual questions and orders from the deck quickly followed.  
'Where away?'
'Two points on the weather bow!'
'How far off?'
'A mile and a half!'
'Keep your eye on her!'

From J. Ross Browne's Etchings of a Whaling Cruize (1846) quoted in Moby-Dick  
“There she blows,” was sung out from the mast-head. “Where away?” demanded the captain. “Three points off the lee bow, sir.” “Raise up your wheel. Steady!” “Steady, sir.” “Mast-head ahoy! Do you see that whale now?” “Ay ay, sir! A shoal of Sperm Whales! There she blows! There she breaches!” “Sing out! sing out every time!” “Ay Ay, sir! There she blows! there- there- thar she blows -bowes -bo-o-os!”

In this instance, they've spotted a whole bunch of whales (a shoal of them), yet the cry remains "she."

In this rendition, the spray from the whale is pretty enormous.  The people in the whaling boats are having a rough time of it.
(Image from the National Archives of Canada, from the Canadian Museum of Civilization)

I found other examples (see Sources below), but for the sake of not beating the point to death, I think it's safe to conclude that it wasn't just Melville or Ahab being weird, but it really was what people actually said at the time.  I also think, since my first example followed Moby-Dick's publication by only 2 years and my second preceded the book by 5 years, that they weren't simply mimicking Moby-Dick, either.

So I'm ruling out Theory 1.  My next idea comes from how the feminine gender is used and when the masculine gender is used to refer to the whale(s).

Theory 2: The Spout is Female, the Whale is Male

A book by James Cooper Wheeler called There She Blows! A Whaling Yarn (1909) provides some especially good examples in support of this theory.  As in Moby-Dick, the whalers also use the feminine to give the signal:
"Jonas, is that a whale?"
He caught it like a flash, and answered:
"Of course it is! Sing out quick before the officers catch on and get the credit."
"There she blows!" I yelled, and I think the whale must have been deaf if he did not hear me himself.
Here, the hero yells out "There she blows" after seeing the spray, and then refers to the whale as male.  Only a few lines later, someone else on the whaling ship does the same thing:
[T]he Old Man stiffened to an attitude of intense attention:
"Thar she blows! Thar she blows! Thar she blows! Thar she white waters!"
This last wad a wailing screech, and the Old Man called, his voice eager as a terrier's whine:
"What do you make of him, Mr. Stoddard? That sounds to me like sperm whale, sir!"
"It's a long bull, sir! And sperm all right."
A pattern seems to be developing: when referring to evidence of the whale, the feminine pronoun is used.  But when the whale itself is discussed, the masculine pronoun is used.

The same thing happens again a bit later.  The whale has been identified as male, but when he surfaces to breathe and shoots up the tell-tale spray of water, the feminine is used again:
The whale disappeared now, and Jonas said he had sounded, but would come to the surface again before long. I held my breath and searched that stretch of black water as though I was looking for gold. Again I was the lucky one--I guess I had the best eyes--and I caught the black spot and the mist spray of the spout before the others:
"Thar she blows! Thar she blows! Thar she blows!"
The immediate referent of the "she" is the spout.  So maybe it's only the spray of water, the signal, that's feminine, while the whale itself is whatever sex it was born with.

In this engraving depicting Dutch whaling in the Arctic, everybody's circling to get the whale, whose spume of spray is clearly visible.
(Image from Wikipedia)

If that's true--and I'm not saying it definitely is, I'm only proposing a theory--why?  Could it be that the spray-spout was given a feminine gender in the same what that, say, ships used to be referred to as feminine?  (They're not anymore, by the way.  Most navies around the world have agreed that it's outmoded to do that, and it is now official policy to refer to ships using the neuter gender.)  Perhaps there are some similarities between the rationale for calling ships "she" and calling a whale's breathing-spume "she."

Sub-Theory A: Just as Ships are Feminine Because of Grammar, So Also is the Spout

  •  If we're going to go with this idea, then it will be helpful to know why ships are referred to as female.  Then we can see if the same concept applies to the spout.
  • As with many old habits of grammar, nobody is quite sure where the practice of referring to ships as female originated.  
  • But some very educated guessers surmise that in the languages which were forerunners to English, the word for "ship" was feminine.  However, the OED says that ship most likely came from the Old High German word schiff.  I don't know what gender that word had then, but in today's German, schiff is neuter.
  • On the other hand, the wiseGEEK says that "In most Indo-European languages with grammatical gender, the word for 'ship' is feminine."  So maybe my supposition about German being the best source of ship is off-target, and maybe the true root of the word does have a feminine gender.  
  • So I'm not ruling this explanation out, but I don't think it's a hard and fast, absolute answer.

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, it was popular to put figureheads on the prows of ships. The ship-bound statues were supposed to ward off bad luck, and if the crewmates did drown, the spirit of the figurehead would lead the sailors' spirits to heaven.  Very often the figureheads were female.
(Photo of the 1877 Elissa from Ahoy - Mac's Web Log)

  • But let's pretend that's right, and let's pretend that the root-word for spout influenced the gender in English.  What is the gender of the word for "spout" in other European languages?
    • spout
      • French bec or jet both masculine
    • spray
      • German Sprühnebel masculine
    • fountain
      • French fontaine feminine
      • German Fontäne feminine
      • Latin fons masculine
  • This isn't an exhaustive list by any means, but it sure isn't looking very conclusive in any particular direction.  I think I'm going to conclude that if it's only the spray-spout that's regarded as feminine, it probably isn't for any reason having to do with the gender of some root word.

Engraving from J. Ross Browne's Etchings of a Whaling Cruise
(Image from Ten Pages [or More])

Sub-Theory B: Just as Ships are Feminine Because of Male Bias, So Also is the Spout

  • Another possible reason for why ships were called "she" back in the day may have had to do with the fact that only men were working on them.  
  • It was even considered bad luck to have a woman on board ship -- though sometimes the captain's wife sailed with the ship, and it was even noted in some instances that women made better navigators.  But on the whole, it was nearly always men who crewed the ship.  So they decided the gender of the ship, and they generally decided it was female.
  • Various readings of this practice have been offered, such as that "the ship was the only woman allowed at sea and was treated with deference and respect," or that ships were expensive and required a lot of maintenance just like a woman, or that a ship was given a feminine gender "to show a certain kind of sympathy with or affection for the thing." 
  • Regardless of the rationale, one thing that does seem to hold true is that the ship was regarded as "other."  It's not one of us men, but different, but it has more personality than an "it," so therefore it's female.

Currier & Ives print of whaling
(Image from somewhere on this Tumblr page)

  • If the whale is male--and it seemed that since female sperm whales tend to hide out at lower depths where they protect their calves, most often the whales that were encountered were male--and if the spout is the first sign of the whale, the thing that identifies the male whale and is therefore in a kind of allegiance with the men onboard the ship, and is therefore something they have a kind of affinity with yet are also apart from because they're not out there in the water with it, then the spray-spout is given a feminine gender.
  • Or that could be a lot of hoo-hah.
  • (Russian ships, by the way, were masculine.)
I think I'm going to sum up Theory 2, that the spout is feminine even while the whale may be masculine, by concluding that while that theory might be accurate, I can't put my finger on a particular reason that seems to be a hard and fast explanation of why that might be so.  So I'm not going to say that's definitely the deal.

Watch out for that tail.
(Image from Full Stop)

People who want to give Moby-Dick a thorough gender-based reading might have a lot of fun playing with the concept of the sea being feminine and the spout being more of the sea than of the whale.  Or you might want to play around with the idea of the whale being the male whalers' prey, and so even if they know the sex of the whale to be male, the spray-spout which is its harbinger could be whatever gender they want, and since they want it to be "other" and therefore easier to hunt and kill, they settled on feminine.

Those concepts are for other folks to duke out in literary circles.  Not for your Apple Lady who tries to deal in verifiable fact as much as possible.  So I'll leave those possibilities right there, as only possibilities (which could also be a bunch of hoo-hah). 

Theory 3: It's Easier to Say

  • You try shouting "There he blows!" and then "There she blows!" and you'll see what I mean.
  • It might come down to something as simple as that.

The Real Answer

In case you haven't figured this out already, the real answer is "I don't know for sure, and nobody else seems to, either."  (Sorry I couldn't do better for you, Mr. Kish.)

The End.

(Image from the NY Review of Books)

Related entry: Ambergris

Reverend Henry T. Cheever, The Whale and His Captors (1853), at EyeWitness to History

James Cooper Wheeler, There She Blows! A Whaling Yarn (1909)
Capt. John A. Cook and Samson S. Pederson, Thar She Blows (1937)
New Bedford Whaling Museum, Whales and Hunting
Long Island History, Whaling & Fishing
Columbia County Historical Society, Whaling Terms and Phrases
Glossophilia, Why is a ship a she?, Naming Ships
Steve Krause, Gender in German
Reverso, spray in German, and other words in other European languages
Timeless Myths, Women on Board Ship - Bad Luck

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