Wail - Wales - whale

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Three near-homophones are common in English, along with a rarer one. In many dialects, there is a clear distinction between Wales and whales (but see also W - Wh), but they, along with wale, form one of the sets of homophones listed by the then Poet Laureate Robert Bridges.
(For more, see Bridges homophones). AWE has a category listing our articles on each of these.
Be careful with spelling them.

  • The verb 'to wail', along with the related noun 'a wail' ('the action of wailing'), is 'to make a long noise or cry (of pain or grief)'. At funerals, there is commonly wailing - sometimes in an alliterative pair, 'weeping and wailing'. The third person inflection of the present tense is wails.
  • Wales on the other hand is a country. It is the smallest of the three units on the main island of the United Kingdom. It lies west of England, and is technically a principality - the land of a Prince. The adjective meaning 'from Wales', 'to do with Wales' is Welsh.
  • Whales (see the note in) is the plural of the noun whale. Whales are very large mammals that live in the oceans. They are sometimes called 'fish', often by people who caught them, known as whalers - but this is biologically wrong. (Fish are cold-blooded and lay eggs; mammals, including the whale, are warm-blooded and bear live young. Whalers were the hunters who used harpoons, and risked their lives at sea - as in Melville's novel Moby-Dick.)
There are several rare meanings of a word wale, with no -h-. Of this, the only one a modern Higher Education is likely to find is 'a stripe' or 'a ridge', especially (1) the strip raised by a lash on the skin of someone who is beaten; (2) a line of planking round a boat, and related wooden constructions (the highest line of planking in a boat is the gunwale, pronounced 'GUNN-el'; (3) a ridge on a horse's collar (but a waler is a horse imported from New South Wales, in Australia).