I came across the word in question in the following passage from Moby-Dick:

Now, to any one not fully acquainted with the ways of the leviathans, it might seem an absurdly hopeless task thus to seek out one solitary creature in the unhooped oceans of this planet. But not so did it seem to Ahab, who knew the sets of all tides and currents; and thereby calculating the driftings of the sperm whale’s food; [...]

Methinks it means borderless, yet not being quite sure about it I looked up the word in more than one dictionary. Sadly, none of the dictionaries I consulted describes any other meaning than the word's literal meaning (i.e. not containing hoops). What do y'all think?

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    Methinks it means borderless, near enough! Unhooped - unbounded. If you look at a globe, it is quite possible for a whale to swim round the world.
    – Greybeard
    Nov 23, 2020 at 19:30
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    Wiktionary lists the verb unhoop (active: remove hoops from), but 'unhooped' seems largely limited to this one quote from Moby-Dick. The dearth of hits on a Google search leads one to think that it hasn't progressed from the 'non-standard' classification. But doubtless intended as 'boundless'. Nov 23, 2020 at 19:32
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    Just in case you're not aware -- no one uses methinks unless they're trying to sound like they're in Shakespeare.
    – Justin
    Nov 24, 2020 at 16:24
  • @Justin An interesting thought...because it highlights an issue with punctuation in our script at SE ..answers as well as comments. Nov 24, 2020 at 20:48
  • @Cascabel - I'm not quite following. Are you talking about the ambiguity when using italics?
    – Justin
    Nov 25, 2020 at 3:03

2 Answers 2


I suspect it comes from the concept of contained bodies of water/beer/ wine/whisky and especially whale oil within a vessel (such as a barrel).

enter image description here Empty barrels waiting to be loaded onto whaling ships of the 1800s

enter image description here*note that each hoop has its own name (ex french etc) from the trade. (not covered in this post)


A circular band of metal, wood, or similar material, especially one used for binding the staves of barrels or forming part of a framework.


So, "unhooped" would mean:


unlimited or immense.





See also: hoop (v) Etymonline:


It has been suggested (thank you @Flynn) that the latitude and longitude lines of a world map might also make sense....meaning "uncharted".

enter image description here

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    It’s worth noting that Melville uses language very flexibly and imaginatively, to an extent more common in poetry than in most prose — very often using words with broad figurative extensions of their usual meanings, without explicit signalling or explanation. So having to stretch a little to link Melville’s use to the dictionary definition is no great surprise!
    – PLL
    Nov 24, 2020 at 13:49
  • Perfectly (and figuratively) put by @PLL (I could have saved writing an answer!)
    – Fattie
    Nov 24, 2020 at 15:15
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    I'm sure Cascabel is correct. But when I first read the question I wondered if "unhooped" meant uncharted. The lines of latitude being hoops.
    – Flynn
    Nov 24, 2020 at 17:29
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    @Flynn That's a thought...and the lines of longitude would represent staves. Nov 24, 2020 at 18:16

Singular usage words in literature like this have no "meaning" that anyone (even the author) can write down. A famous example is

  • "My salad days..."

from Shakespeare. Nobody has the slightest clue what this means, but it's very obvious what it means. Remember too that we live in a great poetic era,

  • "I am the Walrus..."

  • "The movement you need is on your shoulder..."

from Misters Lennon & McCartney respectively. It's completely obvious what is "meant" - you are instantly and with total crystal clarity given something very specific - but you can't "look up the meaning".

Literary, suggestive, highly intense language like this delivers you a kick in the gut, and a very clear kick in the gut. But like when you look at a Caravaggio and get a Caravaggio kick in the gut, you can't write down the "meaning" or "reason" ("because of the blue color here" or the like).

Nominally "unhooped" means "a barrel with the hoops taken off", a word a cooper might use.

The only sense in which you can "state the meaning" is that a group of folks could discuss the, for want of a better word, impression, sense, emotion that is conveyed to each of them.

For me it makes me think of something not yet constructed, not yet figured-out (but then, my grandfather was in the cooperage business), so for example nowadays the oceans, even the moon, is certainly "hooped" by mankind and our technology; for others it might convey or "mean" something smashed apart, 100s of gallons of liquid flying around willy-nilly.

(I guess this issue is constant for translators. One could translate that as a range of things .. unknown, chaotic, not yet conquered, on the edge of falling apart at any moment .. etc .. all different.)

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    But 'salad days' is a fixed expression, defined in dictionaries (whether or not the modern definition is what Shakespeare had in mind). 'Unhooped oceans' is probably still not a moderate collocation. Nov 24, 2020 at 15:27
  • Also, Shakespeare helpfully tells you what he means: "my salad days, when I was green in judgment, cold in blood..."
    – Micah
    Nov 24, 2020 at 18:00
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    @Cascabel it might be an interesting stream of consciousness, but it doesn't answer the question IMO. (BTW the assertion that the "meaning of "I am a Walrus" is obvious" doesn't seem consistent with the fact that Lennon only later realized that the Walrus was the bad guy in Lewis Carroll's poem, not the good guy! If even the author didn't know what he meant, there's not much hope for the rest of us!
    – alephzero
    Nov 24, 2020 at 22:54

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