Whales: A study in comparative linguistic biology

As a modern language major and long-time lover of language and linguistics; I often ponder the phrases that become common place for describing people; both positive and negative.  The phrase I’m going to look at today (triggered by my recent first ever whale watch this past Sunday) is: “Big as a Whale”.

In the common vernacular you might hear “Big as a Whale” used to describe a person.  The phrase is used with a negative connotation.  It is used to mean that whomever you are indicating (or actually addressing) is beyond the size of a “normal human”.  Included with the base comparison of size are nuances that said recipient of the phrase is not only overly large for his/her species (so much so that a whole new ENORMOUS creature must be used for reference); but has become this way by means of gulping vast quantities of food in a manner reminiscent of the comparison creature (in this case: Whales).

Let’s take a quick moment to compare humans and whales and see if they are actually, in any way, comparable.   As there are two sub-types of whales, I have compared humans against both Baleen Whales and Toothed Whales.



Baleen Whales

Toothed Whales


They are warm blooded mammals





They breathe air





They bear live young and nurse them with milk





Eating habits are the same for individuals within the same species

Yes. Baleen whales consume between 2000 and 9000 pounds of fish and krill a day

Yes. The daily consumption of toothed whales ranges between 5 and 20 percent of their body weight

Yes. Study after study shows that humans eat the same average amount; regardless of size

Are active in their daily lives, regardless of size

Yes. In spite of their enormous mass, baleen whales are able to leap completely out of the water

Yes. Most toothed whales swim rapidly.  They are also famous for their acrobatic breaching from the water

Yes. Physical activity energy expenditure has not declined since the 1980s and matches energy expenditures of wild mammals

Are vilified for their size; the largest of their particular species compared to vastly larger species in an attempt to further degrade particular individuals



Sadly: Yes  Yes  Yes


Huh.  So to sum up; maybe humans ARE like whales.  We are all eating, living, air-breathing creatures who like to be active.  Oh yeah, and we all have bodies that store fat too.  I guess the only real distinction between us, aside from the obvious looks (and correspondingly different species classifications), would be in how vilified larger humans are in comparison to larger whales.  No one who goes on a whale watch will see the largest one out there and sneer at it; calling it dirty names for its size.

So the largest creatures on the planet are capable of being graceful, majestic, amazing beings who bring awe to any who view them.  While humans are called “Whales” only as a means to degrade in reference to size.  Seems a bit silly if you ask me.  I mean, blue whales, the largest of the “whale-kind” have an average weight of 142,000 pounds.  By contrast, the average human weighs between 135 and 190 pounds.  I’ve heard of exaggerating to illustrate a point but isn’t that a bit extreme?  


While it has been shown above that whales and humans do share many positive characteristics; these qualities are certainly not what comes to mind when that hateful “Big as a Whale” is tossed, grenade-style, to explode upon some unsuspecting fat human.  No.  The only quality isolated is size. The person yelling out “Big as a Whale” is not making a true analogy; they are looking to inflict verbal damage upon someone for the sake of inflating their own ego; choosing size-slurs as their weapons of choice.  These sorts of people aren’t falsely concerned with our health.  They aren’t worried about “the children”.  They quite simple and plainly are looking to mentally abuse another person so as to boost their own self-worth and have chosen the fatties as the targets. 


Well I call your bluff on the case of whales.  No human can possibly get to the size of a whale.  No human EATS as much as a whale; we all eat like humans.  It is a nonsensical comparison; just like many of the arguments against fat.  So we’ll have to assume that when someone says, in reference to another, that they are “Big as a Whale,” they are really intending to say “Graceful, Majestic, Grand, Spectacular as a Whale.”


And quite frankly; if these enormous whales are able to live full, healthy, amazing lives at their IMMENSE sizes; why does it boggle the mind of some folks that humans on the larger end of the size spectrum within our OWN species are able to do the same?  Our size is NOT indicative of either our health or our individual worth as human beings.  In the words of one of my favorite wise-men, “Size matters not.  Look at me.  Judge me by my size do you? Hmm?  Hmm.  And well you should not.”  Indeed.  Well you should not.



3 thoughts on “Whales: A study in comparative linguistic biology

  1. Pingback: Cows: Another study in comparative linguistic biology « I AM in shape. ROUND is a shape.

  2. Pingback: Mermaid or Whale? « I AM in shape. ROUND is a shape.

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