The Origin of the Name "Moby Dick"

The name of Melville's most famous creation was suggested by an article by Jeremiah Reynolds, published in the New York Knickerbocker Magazine in May 1839. Mocha Dick: or The White Whale of the Pacific recounted the capture of a giant white sperm whale that had become infamous among whalers for its violent attacks on ships and their crews. The meaning of the name itself is quite simple: the whale was often sighted in the vicinity of the island of Mocha, and "Dick" was merely a generic name like "Jack" or "Tom" -- names of other deadly whales cited by Melville in Chapter 45 of Moby-Dick::

"But not only did each of these famous whales enjoy great individual celebrity -- nay, you may call it an ocean-wide renown; not only was he famous in life and now is immortal in forecastle stories after death, but he was admitted into all the rights, privileges, and distinctions of a name; had as much a name indeed as Cambyses or Caesar. Was it not so, O Timor Jack! thou famed leviathan, scarred like an iceberg, who so long did'st lurk in the Oriental straits of that name, whose spout was oft seen from the palmy beach of Ombay? Was it not so, O New Zealand Tom! thou terror of all cruisers that crossed their wakes in the vicinity of the Tattoo Land? Was it not so, O Morquan! King of Japan, whose lofty jet they say at times assumed the semblance of a snow-white cross against the sky? Was it not so, O Don Miguel! thou Chilian whale, marked like an old tortoise with mystic hieroglyphics upon the back! In plain prose, here are four whales as well known to the students of Cetacean History as Marius or Sylla to the classic scholar."

The transformation of "Mocha" to "Moby", however, presents a greater mystery. Melville himself never explained the origin of the latter word. Did he invent it on a whim and like the way it sounded? Or is it some strange piece of hermetic Melvillean arcana? The answer will probably never be known, but a number of scholars have amused themselves by taking shots at it. Following as an example is a conjecture put forth by Harold Beaver in his "Commentary" on the Penguin Classics edition of Moby-Dick (1972):

"By July 1846 even the Knickerbocker Magazine had forgotten its earlier version [of Reynold's article], reminding its readers of 'the sketch of "Mocha Dick, of the Pacific", published in the Knickerbocker many years ago...'. That account may well have led Melville to look up the earlier issue, in the very month he rediscovered his lost buddy of the Acushnet and fellow deserter on the Marquesas, Richard Tobias Greene, and began 'The Story of Toby' [the sequel to Typee]. May not 'Toby Dick' then have elided with 'Mocha Dick' to form that one euphonious compound, 'Moby Dick'?"

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