There's a saying I hear used which I've spelled as “wailing upon”, implying someone besetting someone else to such an extent they are overwhelming that person. I mostly hear it used in gaming, describing e.g. a player hammering away at an enemy.

Recently contrary to my experience I've come across people who think the correct spelling is “waling”. In looking up any of the words in OED or MW I failed to find any definitions with any relevance to the saying (which I found pretty strange — two major dictionaries mentioning nothing?).

What's the correct way to write this from a prescriptivist point of view, if there is one (and it's not just total slang)? If there is no prescriptivist point of view, is there a descriptivist consensus?

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    have you looked them up in a dictionary?
    – Jim
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 17:16
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    @Jim Yes, and had trouble finding anything useful that appeared to be related to this usage. (Hence my following this up asking if there was any descriptivist consensus in the event there was no prescriptivist view.) Commented May 21, 2017 at 18:48
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    EL&U likes questions to show evidence of research. We’d typically expect that if a dictionary had been consulted, the results of that dictionary search would be provided along with a statement like: “I found that the dictionary said this and this but because of this other thing I am still not able to understand the differences, etc. Then EL&U can attempt to address your specific issue. I suspect that if you consulted a dictionary you found what we all found, didn’t like it, and was looking for someone else to possibly support your position.
    – Jim
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 19:09
  • @AndyT well, the three words I'm asking about, is that not clear? There's no relevant definitions to quote. Rather than list six dictionary lookups' worth of definitions, I'd rather just say "I didn't find anything". I'm linking to the front page because I'm linking to the dictionaries I used. I can edit in the three search links for each as well. Commented May 22, 2017 at 8:54
  • Additional point in support of the cetacean homograph: merriam-webster.com/grammar/usage-of-whale-wail-wale
    – Steve
    Commented Jan 17 at 5:31

3 Answers 3


"Whale" is standard in this kind of context. There is another question about it with some more information: Using "whale" as a verb

A side note: I have seen "on" used more often than "upon" in this expression. "Away" is also possible. Apparently, it can also be used as a transitive verb with a direct object.

Unfortunately, as Jim says, the spelling you have been accustomed to use ("wail") seems the least defensible from a prescriptive point of view. It has been noted in an entry on the eggcorn database: whale » wail.

The OED entry for whale, v.2 provides the following information:

  • Of obscure origin. Commonly regarded as a spelling of wale v.1, but there are difficulties of form, chronology, and meaning. Perhaps originally = to thrash with a whalebone whip (see whalebone n. 3b).

    Now U.S. colloq.

    1. trans. To beat, flog, thrash.

      1790 F. Grose Provinc. Gloss. (ed. 2) Whale, to beat with a horsewhip or pliant stick.

    1. transf. intr. To do something implied by the context continuously or vehemently.

      a1852 F. M. Whitcher Widow Bedott Papers (1883) vi. 67 You remember that one that come round a spell ago a whalin' away about human rights.

So the primary spelling seems to be whale, but it seems there could be an etymological argument for spelling it wale (if it is connected to the word wale, meaning a raised line or ridge, the source of the word weal). That said, I haven't seem any evidence indicating that the spelling wale is used in practice in any carefully edited works. It doesn't seem to show up on the Google Ngram Viewer:

Ngrams not found: wale away at, wale on him, wail on him, wale him

(I assume "wail away at" and "wail him" show up because of the other, more legitimate uses of the spelling "wail".)

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    I wonder if here isn't a connection between the verb, in the sense of "to flog", and the noun weal: A red, swollen mark left on flesh by a blow or pressure.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 18:27
  • @HotLicks: "weal" is indeed connected to the word "wale" the OED mentions. edited to add that info
    – herisson
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 18:28
  • Note that the example under the second OED definition is more suggestive of "wailing" in the sense of crying in agony than it is of "beating".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 18:38
  • @HotLicks: It's possible that there has been some influence in both directions in terms of sense and spelling.
    – herisson
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 18:41
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    Another supporting citation: merriam-webster.com/grammar/usage-of-whale-wail-wale
    – Steve
    Commented Jan 17 at 6:19

The two term are easily confused because of their pronunciation:

Whale vs wail (and wale):

  • A whale is a large marine mammal, one of the larger cetacean mammals that has flippers, a streamlined body and a blowhole. Whale may also be used as an adjective to signify something outstanding or impressive. Whale is also used as a verb to mean to thrash soundly, to beat upon, or to go fishing for whales. The word whale is derived from the Old English word hwæl.


  • A wail is a high-pitched cry of grief, anger or pain. Wail may be used as a noun or a verb, related words are wails, wailed, wailing, wailful, wailfully, wailingly, wailer. Wail is also used by American Jazz musicians to mean to play well. Wail comes from the Old Norse word væla, which means to lament.

(The Grammarist)

to Whale on:

To strike or hit someone or something repeatedly and forcefully;

  • thrash someone or something: The street gangs whaled on each other until someone called the police.


  • You might also talk about waling meaning to mark with welts as with the stroke of a whip.
    – Jim
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 17:38
  • @Jim - the third homophonic verb is explained in the attached link from the Grammarist.
    – user66974
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 17:40
  • Being that the focus in your answer is on the similarity in pronunciation, were the pronunciations more similar in pre-vowel shift times, or is this expression to young for that to apply? Considering the etymological history presented by yourself, I would assume the latter not to be true.
    – Canned Man
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 15:27

You "whale" on a person, when you thrash them.

You "wail" on a guitar, when you just thrash.

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    Not sure why this was downvoted. I find it helpful. // fectin, if you can add some documentation, your answer would be strengthened. Commented May 22, 2017 at 3:57
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    I'm guessing the lack of support for the answer is probably why it was downvoted.
    – V2Blast
    Commented Sep 29, 2021 at 22:13

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