Imagine if we learned how to communicate with whales. And then imagine if they learned what we call them.
The research vessel gently bobbed off the coast of California. The mid-afternoon sun reflected off the water, blinding anyone facing west. To the east, spouts of different sizes and shapes erupted like cacophonous blasts. Each exhale marked a different breed of whale, and they all had fish breath.
The first whale to approach was an enormous creature, over 100 feet in length. The behemoth rolled onto its side. An eye the size of a manhole cover fixed on the humans in the vessel. With an intake of breath that would have filled 2,000 balloons, the creature spoke.
“I am the largest creature in the ocean.”
Humans: “Yep. In fact, you are the largest living thing to have ever lived on this planet. You are even larger than the largest dinosaur.”
“So, you have named me something fitting for my size? Maybe ‘Mega-Whale’?”
Humans: “Nope. We named you ‘Blue’.”
Humans: “Just ‘Blue’.”
“I’m not even blue!”
“Doesn’t matter. You’re Blue”.
Another whale approached. This one with long pectoral fins.
“And what of us? We are the singing whales you’ve studied for years.”
Humans: “Yeah, those are nice songs. We call you ‘Humpbacks’.”
“What? But we don’t have humpbacks!”
Humans: “Hate to tell you this, but you have a humped back”.
“But what about our songs?”
Humans: “We sell them to hippies in New Age stores.”
“Our songs tell the story of the history of the Earth from the beginning of time until now. The songs become longer with the passing of each generation.”
Humans: “You’re still Humpbacks.”
“We sing hanging upside down!”
Humans: Probably why you have humpbacks. Next!”
A larger whale approached.
Humans: “We call you ‘Right Whale’.”
“Because we are so intelligent and wise?”
Humans: “Nope. Because you were the ‘right’ ones to kill.”
Humans: “Yeah, we used to hunt whales more. We thought you were the best kind to kill.”
Humans: “Well, according to the historical documentation we wrote, you didn’t even try to run.”
“Because we are peaceful creatures!”
Humans: “‘Peaceful creatures nearly hunted into extinction.”
“Well, that explains why it’s so hard to find a date.”
A whale with a blockish head approached.
“I am the largest carnivorous whale in the ocean. I am feared across the Earth.”
Humans: “We named you ‘Sperm Whale’.”
“Why would you call us that?”
Humans: “We used to think your head was full of sperm.”
“I have epic battles with giant squid!”
Humans: “It was that or ‘Frankenstein-Head Whale.”
“So, we’re just giant swimming testicles to you?”
Humans: “That’s right. The good news is you are in an epic novel.”
“As a wise and noble creature?”
Humans: “As a metaphor for a penis.”
“What! Who would write a novel about a whale penis?”
Humans: “Human penis.”
A smaller, black and white whale approached.
“We hunt in wolf-packs and mate for life.”
Humans: “We call you ‘Orca’ or ‘Killer Whale’.”
“Oh, those are both great names. We heard what you named the other whales . . . “
Humans: “Well, you aren’t whales.”
“But we are whales.”
Humans: “Nope. You’re dolphins.”
“What’s the difference?”
Humans: “If you are really big, you are a whale. But you have to be really big because we always compare whales to the size of buses. If you are smaller and cute, then you are a dolphin.”
“What if you are small and not cute?”
Humans: “Then you’re a porpoise. We decided you were dolphins with a really cool paint job, so we call you whales but you’re really dolphins.”
Humans: “You’re famous.”
Humans: “Yep. We keep you in giant aquariums where people pay to see you.”
“And watch us hunt and kill? Is that why you call us ‘Killer Whales’?”
“To watch you give a woman a ride and jump through hoops.”
“You also splash children.”
Noah Baird, the author of Donations to Clarity, spends too much time wondering about the names of things.