whale » wail

Chiefly in:   wail away at

Classification: English

Spotted in the wild:

  • “… So, what’s the consensus? Plan your work and work your plan? Plan it but then wing it? Or just wail away at the keyboard and see what happens?” (Bob Newell on rec.arts.int-fiction, 5 June 1994)
  • “and wail away at each other, drawing blood. They drip snot and tears, stumble in to Murph’s mother, she clucks and fusses, ices their wounds, …” (link)
  • “Well, I do wail away at the Establishment. But I’m not particularly angry about it.” (link)

Analyzed or reported by:

  • Alison Murie (American Dialect Society mailing list, 5 June 2005)

Alison Murie’s ADS-L query about the first cite led me to 561 Google hits, almost all of which look like genuine replacements for the idiom “whale away at” — involving the verb “whale”, which is of uncertain etymology but seems to have nothing to do with whales. Replacement by “wail” at least introduces a component of tear-producing pain resulting from striking or beating, a component that is especially vivid in the second cite above.

| link | entered by Arnold Zwicky, 2005/06/05 |


  1. 1

    Commentary by Bernard Greenberg , 2005/06/12 at 7:14 pm

    To “wail away” is a legitimate, old usage applied to a musical performance,
    particularly of a rock, jazz, or blues artist (search “wail away guitar solo”), e.g., “He really
    wailed away with his lead solo on ‘All Along the Watchtower’”, clearly referring
    to wailing singing or plaintive instrumental work evocative of same, and, relevantly,
    comprising notions of valiant exertion. There is little
    doubt in my mind that this is one of the roots of the pseudocetaceanism
    on the table.

  2. 2

    Commentary by D.B. , 2005/07/25 at 11:28 pm

    This is the first eggcorn I’ve encountered here that’s really stopped me up short. I was certain it was “wail.” I’m familiar with “wailing away” both in reference to musical contexts as Brenard mentioned, and in the same vein as reference to beating. “Wailing” to me never implied bringing someone to tears or verbal “wails,” but the actual striking action both homophonous and, apparently, synonymous with “whaling.”

  3. 3

    Commentary by Tom , 2006/12/20 at 10:46 pm

    From Johnson’s English Dictionary, a snippet found via Google:

    “Weal away” interj. Alas. Spenser: “Now out alas! he cride, and wele away! I wounded am full fore!” Spenser’s poems.

    I wonder if this relates to where this phrase came from. From “alas” to “weal/happiness is gone” to several other apparent meanings this phrase appears common in middle english texts.

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