Let’s be honest; it’s an intimidating word. Cetacean. (sih-TAY-shuhn). When you hear it, you want to spell it differently – with an “s” – and when you see it written down, you want to pronounce it differently. For transparency, the first time I used the word, I totally butchered it. I said SET-ah-see-an. In front of an audience. I am more humiliated at this in retrospect, because at the time I was just so damn proud to actually be using the word. And I am not alone in my pronunciation challenges. This is apparently such a widespread issue that a pronunciation guide for cetacean taxonomic names was published in Aquatic Mammals Journal in 2001.
So what exactly does the word mean? Remember back to sixth grade science, when you learned that hierarchical classification system… not the Dewey decimal, but the Linnaeus one – species, genus, family, order, etc.? This helped to standardize the classifications, or the grouping and naming, of animals and plants and other things. Well cetacean comes from the word Cetacea, which is an Order in the classification system. That Order includes all whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Underneath this the order is split into two suborders – Odontoceti* (toothed) and Mysticeti** (baleen), but let’s not go there, because I just mispronounced one of those last week…
Most importantly why should you even torture yourself to use it? Maybe the word is creeping into our vernacular. Or maybe it’s because you just love whales… and dolphins and perhaps orca, which are the largest of the dolphin species, and therefore, not technically covered by the word whale. And this word covers them all, in one precise blow. And you love accuracy. That is the beauty of the word. So go on, use it. Impress your friends. Let’s bring the word to the people. I love cetaceans!!
 See Ranneft et al., A guide to the pronunciation and meaning of cetacean taxonomic names, Aquatic Mammals 27.2, 183-195 (2001).
Photo © Whale Research