Green’s Dictionary of Slang

whale n.

[joc. uses of SE, the size of the creature]

1. an important or influential person.

Rambler’s Mag. Feb. 78/2: It is recommended to [ladies] who move within the frozen sphere of maidenhood not to throw away the gudgeons and small fry who are disposed to bite, in confidence that whales and large fish are at all times to be found in the seas of Lap-land.

2. (US, orig. campus) an exceptionally brilliant scholar.

[US]C.H. Smith Bill Arp 172: Marks was a whale in his way.
[US]Ade Fables in Sl. (1902) 73: The only thing that worried the Congregation was the Fear that if it wished to retain such a Whale it might have to Boost his Salary.
[US]Ade Girl Proposition 115: She said that she had entertained more Whales than any other Woman along the Street.

3. (US) an exceptionally large or fat person.

[US]J. O’Connor Wanderings of a Vagabond 276: He’s a whale. If he’d had a fair start, now, he’d a cleared out that McGovern gang.
[UK] ‘Mysie Brown’ in Laughing Songster 126: What lass e’er looked on Andrew Slight, / The wale of a’ in Murlingden.
[US]S. Ford Torchy 53: Mr. Robert’s only fair sized; but old man Ellins is a whale.
[US]Dos Passos Manhattan Transfer 239: This is my kid brother Mike [...] Aint he a whale?
[US]C.W. Willemse Behind The Green Lights viii: A ‘whale’ of a man in physique and in heart.
[UK]R.T. Hopkins Banker Tells All 169: They were slim, clever hands – strangely disproportionate for such a whale of a man.
[UK](con. 1974) W. Sherman Times Square 253: The fuckin’ whale owes me twenty thousand.
[UK]Guardian G2 29 Sept. 16: Seasoned gamblers refer to high-rollers like Packer [...] as ‘whales’. It’s an appropriate moniker for our 16-stone, six-foot-plus hero.

4. usu. as a whale for..., a fanatic, an obsessive, a fan of.

[UK]Sporting Times 22 Nov. 1/5: He was a perfect whale on cutlers who advertised sharp razors.
[Aus]H. Lawson ‘Joseph’s Dreams and Reuben’s Brethren’ in Roderick (1967–9) II 103: ’Tis strange that Moses, such a whale / On details out of joint.
[UK]E. Pugh City Of The World 174: I’m a regular whale for cake!
[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 22 Aug. 36/1: And he was never a whale for theology, so his position as a doctor of divinity would be anomalous.
[Aus]E. Dyson Spats’ Fact’ry (1922) 61: You ain’t up to that donah yet. She’s a whale for reform.
[Aus]West. Mail (Perth) 27 May 43/1: She was a whale on chocs!

5. (Aus.) an exceptional performer in any given discipline; also ironic use; thus a whale at/on; whale of a...

[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 14 Nov. 6/4: Master Ernest Hutcheson is a Victorian and a ‘whale’ at the pianny. A few years back a scene was set afoot to foster Ernest a musical taste at the expense of such as liked to come forward.
[UK] ‘’Arry’s Visit to the Moon’ in Punch Christmas Number in P. Marks (2006) 168: I’ve heard you’re a whale, Miss, at Sport!
[US]S. Crane Red Badge of Courage (1964) 148: He’s th’ best off’cer in this here reg’ment. He’s a whale.
[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 22 Dec. 14/1: He strolled into a public bar and loudly called for beer; / He downed it with a gurgling sigh and scratched his off-side ear; / ‘I’m from the country, boys,’ he said, ‘and snakes, but ain’t I dry! / We’re reg’lar whales at sinking beer – us coves from Mungindi.’.
[Aus]Sun. Times (Perth) 20 Jan. 1/1: The Big Beer man of Bunbury is a whale on widders [and] his affection for those of the grass variety got him into trouble.
[UK]C. Holme Lonely Plough (1931) 72: I’m a whale at charities – you just ask Dandy Anne!
[Aus]Sun. Times (Perth) 25 June 1s/1: He was a whale on Limericks.
[US](con. WWI) C. Venable ‘An Argonne Raid’ in Mason Fighting American (1945) 477: Those two lads of mine are whales with hand grenades.
[Aus]Smith’s Wkly (Sydney) 20 Aug. 11/2: Slanguage [...] Cross out the incorrect: word or phrase in the following sentences: [...] ‘Solomon was ’ot stuff (a doer) with the tabbies (tarts) and a fair cow (a whale) on the shicker (’ops)’.

6. (US) a heavy bettor.

[US](con. 1973) C. Stella Johnny Porno 33: A friend of a friend of mine, some whale bets ten dimes a day.

In phrases

whale in the bay (n.) (Aus.)

1. someone who has money to spend and uses it on the assembled company.

[Aus]Williamstown Chron. (Aus.) 23 June 3/3: ‘Wanderer’, said the Editor, ‘there's whales in the bay’ ‘What brand?’ I innocently inquired, under the impression that he had been celebrating the receipt of an old subscriber's cheque.
[Aus] (ref. to 1930s) W.E. Harney Grief, Gaiety and Aborigines 20: Everywhere I heard the term ‘captain’ or ‘a whale in the bay’ and came to realise it meant someone with money to spend.

2. ‘a major influence at work behind the scenes’ (Wilkes).

[Aus]Williamstown Chron. (Aus.) 12 May 8/1: Well, folks, no doubt you are all aware of the frightful display put up by our side last week, and you are no doubt wondering like me, if there is a whale in the bay, or to speak plainly, trouble in the camp.
[Aus]Mercury (Hobart) 19 Jan. 3/4: How quickly Dr. T. Gaha ran to cover among the red herrings to avoid answering my questions about greyhound racing affairs. Over a period of years I have been interested in what becomes of all the money handled by the Hobart Greyhound Racing Club [...] Gaha's red herrings might yet turn out to be a ‘whale in the bay’ if Parliament insists on a proper inquiry.
[Aus]Advertiser (Adelaide) 4 Dec. 2/8: In Sydney when you shout ‘There's a whale in the bay’ you mean a dead one and it stinks.
[Aus]Australian 14 Nov. 3: Mr Read said he had thought there was something suspicious about the race, and had told his staff the only way such a poor horse [Fine Cotton] could possibly win such a race was ‘by a ringin’. ‘I knew there had to be some kind of whale in the bay for this kind of activity to go on’ he said [GAW4].
[Aus]Sydney Morning Herald 23 Mar. 1: ‘Whatever the reason for the turnaround [by the Cabinet on airport policy], it didn’t come out all right,’ the minister added. ‘There was a whale in the bay — Abeles or something. I just don’t know’ [GAW4].
whale of a... (also whaleuva)

1. a general intensifier, whether positive or negative, hell of a, a under hell n.

[US]W.C. Gore Student Sl. in Cohen (1997) 12: whale n. […] 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.’.
[US]Van Loan ‘Out of His Class’ in Taking the Count 193: I’ll give ’em a story! I’ll give ’em a whale of a story!
[US]Van Loan ‘Eliphaz, Late Fairfax’ in Old Man Curry 153: You’re putting up a whale of an argument.
[US]R. Lardner Big Town 138: He’s got a whale of a stable and he expects to clean up round New York with Only One, which he claims can beat any horse.
[US]S. Lewis Babbitt (1974) 34: I just want to know can I do you a whaleuva favour?
[US]‘Ellery Queen’ Roman Hat Mystery 49: It’s taken you a whale of a long time getting here.
[US](con. 1920s) Dos Passos Big Money in USA (1966) 915: I tell you, young men, it’s going to be a whale of a big cake.
[UK]Wodehouse Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit 105: A whale of a complication has been introduced.
[US]Mad mag. Nov.–Dec. 11: There’s gonna be one whale of a battle now.
[US]T. Southern Blue Movie (1974) 62: Not that we can’t make a whale of a movie in a tank-town!
[US](con. 1954) ‘Jack Tunney’ Tomato Can Comeback [ebook] You had one whale of a fight tonight, kid.

2. an exceptional person.

[[UK] Burns ‘Epistle to J.R.’ in Poetical Works (1871) 120: O rough, rude, ready-witted R*****, / The wale o’ cocks for fun an’ drinkin!].
[UK]G. Stratton-Porter Harvester 403: ‘Yes, I’m a whale of a lover!’ said the Harvester grimly. ‘Nice mess I’ve made of it.’.
[US]Van Loan ‘His Own Stuff’ in Score by Innings (2004) 384: He [...] wants [...] to brag about what a whale of a ballplayer he used to be in college.
[US]S. Lewis Main Street (1921) 164: I don’t know as I’d say he was such a whale of a scholar.
[UK]B. Cronin Timber Wolves 254: You’re a whale of a lawyer, you are, Heritage. You don’t know the first thing about it.
[US]W.R. Burnett Dark Hazard (1934) 264: He’s a whale of a dog.
whale of a lot

a large amount of, a great deal of.

[US]S. Lewis Main Street (1921) 214: Don’t think a whale of a lot of that.
[UK]P. Marks Plastic Age 12: He left us a whale of a lot of jack when he passed out a couple of years ago.
[UK]C. Beaton Cecil Beaton’s N.Y. 25: A large amount is ‘a whale of a lot.’.
[US]A. Hynd We Are the Public Enemies 128: They said they could throw a whale of a lot of smoke out of the exhaust of a car by monkeying around with a rich oil mixture.
[US]M. Shulman Rally Round the Flag, Boys! (1959) 75: The Italians [...] enjoyed the meetings a whale of a lot more.
whale of a time (n.)

a riotous evening, an extremely enjoyable occasion; occas. negative use.

[US]W.C. Gore Student Sl. in Cohen (1997) 12: whale n. […] Something exceptionally [...] jolly, as ‘a whale of a time.’.
[US]S. Lewis Babbitt (1974) 290: We [...] had a whale of a good time.
[US](con. 1900s–10s) Dos Passos 42nd Parallel in USA (1966) 310: They’d have a whale of a time getting hitches all over the place.
[Aus]K. Tennant Joyful Condemned 315: I am pleased to think that last leave two of the nicest guys I ever met were having one whale of a time.
[Aus]P. White Solid Mandala (1976) 28: The two old dogs were having a whale of a time amongst the fresh cow-turds and paspalum tussocks.
[UK]J. Sullivan ‘Christmas Crackers’ Only Fools and Horses [TV script] You could be having a whale of a time couldn’t yer?
[UK]Indep. on Sun. Culture 25 July 1: You can imagine the two of them having a whale of a time together.
[UK]N. Barlay Crumple Zone 25: Hello Jonah: you havin’ a whale of a time innit.
[UK]D. Mitchell Black Swan Green 211: You’ll have a whale of a time!

SE in slang uses

In compounds

In phrases

play the whale (v.) [echoic + ? the biblical story of Jonah, who was vomited up by a whale]

(Aus.) to vomit.

[Aus]B. Humphries Barry McKenzie [comic strip] in Complete Barry McKenzie (1988) 26: I’ll chunder [...] throw the voice, play the whale, laugh at the ground.