Oh, the irony: 'Twitter' used to be whaling slang

Long before Twitter was using the "fail whale" as its server-outage image, the word "twitter" was an obscure anatomical term specific to the long-since-taboo practice of hunting sperm whales.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
2 min read
But did it Twitter?

Whenever Twitter's servers take a tumble--which, longtime users undoubtedly recall, used to be pretty frequently--the microblogging service brings up an image of a whale being lifted out of the water by a flock of birds. The creation of designer Yiying Lu, the "fail whale" has become pretty much iconic among Web geeks.

But the official blog of the New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Mass., has informed us all that the word "twitter" was associated with whales long before Evan Williams and Biz Stone were dealing with customer complaints, sort of like how "muggles" was pothead slang decades before "Harry Potter" came along.

"Twitter," believe it or not, once referred to an obscure piece of sperm whale anatomy that was typically only encountered when whalers were chopping up one of the unfortunate creatures.

The Whaling Museum dug up an old document called "Report of the Commissioner for the year ending June 30, 1902: Aquatic products in arts and industries: fish oils, fats, and waxes. Fertilizer from aquatic products," which we assume must've been absolutely fascinating reading. On page 197, the term "twitter" is explained (in way more than 140 characters): it's a "thread-like or membranous substance ranging through the contents of the case...from 2 to 3 inches thick, glutinous, and extremely tough" in the head of a sperm whale. You know, like Moby Dick.

The document continues: "In decapitating the sperm whale, especially in severing near the bunch of the neck, a very sharp spade is required to cut through this tough and elastic formation. Although it is very difficult to manipulate, an economical whaleman never throws this substance away." Um, that sounds kind of horrible and gross. I'll take the more recent definition of "twitter" any day.

(NB: I stumbled upon this thanks to a link from a Twitter account that claims to be written by the massive whale hanging on the ceiling of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.)