Mystery Solved

Early 16th century: alteration (by association with grand ‘big’) of Old French grapois, from medieval Latin craspiscis, from Latin crassus piscis fat fish.

Oxford English Dictionary

Hi blog.

Lacking encounters with wildlife has been a bit depressing.  The need to blog is there, but the material is not.  Then inspiration flashed.

This post is the culmination of random information floating around inside my head for over 23 years that has recently crystallised.

Our first year English textbook (yuck!) has a chapter on a pod of killer whales around Hokkaido, and Kotoe Sasamori, a whale and dolphin researcher.  The text uses the word orca exclusively, completely ignoring the term killer whale – the preferred term in science.

I did a Google ngram search on the terms “orca” and “killer whale”, and until fairly recently, killer whale appeared more frequently in books than orca.

Since Orca is the name of the genus, it will almost always appear in scientific texts that mention killer whales, so there will be some double-dipping in its favour.  However, certain interest groups have been promoting the term orca for image purposes – “killer” sounds a little gruesome.

Exception might be taken to the name bestowed upon this whale, on the ground of its indistinctness. For we are all killers, on land and on sea; Bonapartes and Sharks included.

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale


I decided to write a small information sheet on the English names of toothed whales.  That included, of course, orca and killer whale, and lead me to the archaic “blackfish” (which can also refer to false killer whales, pilot whales, and other toothed whales) and the equally antiquated “grampus”.

Grampus.  Where have I heard that name before?

Flashback to 1993.

I was living in Nagoya at the time the J-League came into inception, and the local heroes in what was to overtake sumo as Japan’s number 2 spectator sport were the Nagoya Grampus Eight.  The logo depicted a killer whale kicking a soccer ball.

“What does Grampus mean?” Not only did I get asked that, I asked it myself!

“Grampus?  What is that?”  You’ll have to forgive me – I was 20-21, hadn’t yet read Moby Dick, and was completely unaware of some of the obscure and obsolete words that had made their way into Japanese-English dictionaries in preference to vastly more common lexical items.  I simply guessed that it was a loan word from another language but mistaken for or mixed with English.  (Not like it’s the first time that has happened)  I also thought the eight referred to the number of players.  (When you are as apathetic towards ball sports as I am, do you really care how many players there are on a soccer team?)  I have since done some research and discovered that the eight is merely a random rendering in English of the official Nagoya logo – a kanji for eight (八) in a circle.

An eight in a circle. I spent a year in Nagoya and was completely oblivious to this.

An eight in a circle. I spent a year in Nagoya and was completely oblivious to this.

It appears that grampus was once used to describe killer whales but, like the term blackfish, could refer to other cetaceans – it is in fact the genus for Risso’s dolphin – and the name is also used for an American whip scorpion and also a large American salamander.

So far, so good, but how do we end up with a killer whale representing Nagoya?  The answer is in Nagoya Castle.  Or more accurately, on Nagoya Castle.

My own experience of Nagoya Castle in 1992 was disappointing.  The reconstruction was essentially a ferro-concrete office building in the shape of a castle.  “Ah, that must be the elevator the Tokugawa lords used.”  Nagoya, however, needed a symbol, and its historical connection with one of the most important castles in the country could not be severed by something as small as the destruction of that castle…

Back to 2016…

My mum and niece were visiting Japan and had found their way into Nagoya.  They asked about places to see, and I suggested the Atsuta Shrine and Tokugawa Museum.  My father-in-law asked why I didn’t direct them to Nagoya Castle to see the kinshachi…

Nagoya Castle has always been famous for the kinshachi, gold-plated shachihoko on its roof.  Shachihoko (鯱), sometimes translated as golden dolphins or golden carp, are mythological beasts with tiger-like heads and piscine bodies, said to be capable of controlling rain and therefore associated with protection from fire – fire being the major threat to temples and castles.

Avid followers may recognise the name from a previous post and realise that shachihoko can also be read as shachi, meaning… killer whale!

One of the two golden Shachihoko on the roof of Nagoya castle.

One of the pair of golden Shachihoko on the roof of Nagoya castle. Photo from Wikipedia.


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