WHALE OF A TIME
Q From Julian Arkell: I cannot find on your website anything about the origin and meaning of the phrase a whale of a time.
A If someone says they are having a whale of a time they mean they’re enjoying themselves very much. It’s one instance of the more general idiom a whale of a ..., an exceedingly great example — for good or bad — of a particular thing. Grammarians call this kind of usage an intensifier, since it adds a superlative to what follows.
The idea behind it, of course, is that whales are big beasts. From the early years of the nineteenth century in the US — and also the UK — people were making the comparison in an idiomatic usage of the related word whaler:
They fib by equivocation — they don’t come plump out, with a tremendous whaler of a fib, but seek to do it by equivocation and confusion of words and ideas, but, in any way, it is all fibbing.
The Day (Glasgow), 28 Mar. 1832.
It may have originally been a saying of the literal sort of whaler, as Maximilian Schele De Vere suggested in his Americanisms in 1872: “That the huge size of a whale should have led sailors, and after their example others also, to speak of any man or event of unusual and imposing proportions as a whaler, seems natural enough.”
A little later in the century the formulation a whale on appeared, with the sense of having a great capacity or appetite for something:
“Of course I’ve got to keep up my authority, you know,” pursued Mr. Binney. “It won’t do to slack the rein yet awhile.” “By George, no,” said Dizzy. “I should be a whale on parental authority myself if I were in your place.”
Peter Binney, by Archibald Marshall, 1899.
I don’t think it was all gallantry that made me do what I did. I’d never been a whale on that sort of thing.
Aliens, by William McFee, 1918.
The first examples of the idiom you’re asking about seem to have arisen as part of student slang at the very end of the nineteenth century, at least to judge from this reference:
whale. 1. A person who is a prodigy either physically or intellectually; one who is exceptionally strong, skilful, or brilliant. “He’s a whale at tennis.” “He’s a whale in mathematics.” 2. Something exceptionally large, as “a whale of a procession;” jolly, as “a whale of a time;” or severe, as “a whale of an examination.”
Student Slang, by Willard C Gore, in The Inlander, a Monthly Magazine of the Students of Michigan University, Dec. 1895.
Within a few years it was appearing more widely:
The other side from camp is straight up, and no man in God’s land need try to climb it; but we had a whale of a time rolling down rocks; and the way they went!
Manitoba Morning Free Press (Winnipeg, Canada), 21 Jun. 1901.
It has never gone away.