5

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 May 21 '17 at 17:16
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    Unfortunately for you I think the choice is between waling and whaling – Jim May 21 '17 at 17:19
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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.) – doppelgreener May 21 '17 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 May 21 '17 at 19:09
  • @Jim I'll revise to add what research I did. I'm not trying to win some kind of argument with someone here, I'm just curious about how this is spelled, since I've heard it said frequently but only encountered conflict about spelling it recently. – doppelgreener May 21 '17 at 19:36
12

"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".)

  • + 1 Nice answer, I am surprised anybody has CV the question yet as general reference. – user66974 May 21 '17 at 18:13
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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 May 21 '17 at 18:27
  • @HotLicks: "weal" is indeed connected to the word "wale" the OED mentions. edited to add that info – herisson May 21 '17 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 May 21 '17 at 18:38
  • @HotLicks: It's possible that there has been some influence in both directions in terms of sense and spelling. – herisson May 21 '17 at 18:41
5

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.

Wail

  • 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.

(AHD)

  • You might also talk about waling meaning to mark with welts as with the stroke of a whip. – Jim May 21 '17 at 17:38
  • @Jim - the third homophonic verb is explained in the attached link from the Grammarist. – user66974 May 21 '17 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 May 22 '17 at 15:27
-2

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. – aparente001 May 22 '17 at 3:57

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