"whale" = something improbable; cock-and-bull story; falsehood, circa 1700?

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Fri Oct 3 14:29:07 UTC 2014

Does anyone have evidence of the use of "whale" to mean something 
improbable; cock-and-bull story; falsehood, in the period between 
c1600 and 1859, particularly around 1700?

c1600 -- A colleague provides the following for "Hamlet":

"Very like a whale.  Very much like a cock-and-bull story; a fudge. 
Hamlet chaffs Polonius by comparing a cloud to a camel, and then to a 
weasel, and when the courtier assents Hamlet adds, "or like a whale"; 
to which Polonius answers, "Very like a whale." (Act iii. 2.)"

[The next line is "Hamlet:  Then I will come to my mother by and 
by.  [Aside] They fool me to the top of my bent. I will come by and 
by."  That is, Hamlet sees the cloud/camel/weasel/whale as an attempt 
at deception.  The OED accepts this interpretation of "very like a 
whale"; see sense 5.a.]

[From] Brewer, E. Cobham. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable Giving the 
Derivation, Source, or Origin of Common Phrases, Allusions, and Words 
That Have a Tale to Tell By the Rev. E. Cobham Brewer, LL.D. New 
Edition Revised, Corrected and Enlarged. To Which is Added a Concise 
Bibliography of English Literature. 105th Thousand. New York: The 
Cassell Publishing Co. 31. East 17th Street, [1894].

1859 -- J. C. Hotten Dict. Slang 115   Very like a whale, said of 
anything that is very improbable. [OED]


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