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Pronounced /ˌmæləməˈreʊkɪŋ/Help with pronunciation

Mallemaroking was the carousing of seamen on board Greenland whaling ships.

You must agree that no true student of the English language can afford to be without this choice specimen of exact usage. Not, you will note, just any seamen aboard any ships, but whalers in the Greenland waters, who were — it seems — always ready for a bit of merry-making in between hunting the Greenland right whale. The whale’s name was another term from the same fishery, too mundanely derived to deserve much attention from word historians, since it was merely the whale found around Greenland that was the right one to hunt, mainly because it floated when dead.

Mallemaroking owes its survival almost entirely to its curious form and peculiarly precise nature. There is small chance that you will find it unselfconsciously used as the right word in the right place. It is the preserve almost solely of those wordsmiths who write about weird words, a sad degeneration of status in whose reduction my own small part is all too obvious. This is a rare exception:

Clusters of Indians huddled around bonfires of driftwood that had floated down the mighty Yukon. It was a time of roistering and wrestling and tug-of-war contests under the midnight sun, a time of “mallemaroking,” as the whalers called their drunken sprees.

In the Kingdom of Ice, by Hampton Sides, 2014.

The word is sometimes said to derive from mallemuck or mallemoke, Dutch words for several large oceanic birds, such as the fulmar or petrel. Dictionaries today prefer to point to another Dutch word, mallemerok, a foolish woman or tomboy. All three come from mal, foolish or silly, plus — in the case of the last word — a derivative of French marotte, an object of foolish affection. How this skittish Dutch lady found her way to Greenland, and gave her name to the carousing of whalers, must be left to the imaginations of readers.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 23 Feb. 2002
Last updated: 6 Mar. 2015

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-mal1.htm
Last modified: 6 March 2015.