The names “killer whale” and “orca” are both used for the same species. “Killer whale” refers to the fact that this animal sometimes kills other whales. But why are the killer whales also called orcas and what does that name mean?
Killer whales are also called orcas because orca is the scientific name of the species. The word orca originally stems from Latin and meant a certain kind of whale. The full scientific name Orcinus orca however reveals a connection to the underworld.
Let’s have a closer look at the real meaning behind the word orca.
Why are they called Orcas?
The word killer whale has been the common name of this animal for centuries and is still very common in English-speaking countries to this day.
The word orca however comes from the scientific name of the killer whales: Orcinus orca.
The name Orca was given to the species of the killer whales by the scientist Linnaeus in 1758 (he called it Delphinus orca). Later, around the 1840s the genus was named Orcinus, resulting in the full name Orcinus orca.
The name orca was not given at random. There were reasons why the scientists decided to give this name to the killer whales.
The name orca actually goes way back to the ancient Romans! In Latin orca means “a kind of whale or marine mammals”.
The origin of this word is not completely clear. But it is often believed that the roots of this word might go back to the Latin word orca which meant “kind of narrow-necked earthenware vessel”, which is often translated as a jug or cask.
The ancient Romans might have described some whales as having a similar shape to these objects.
It is also possible that the word orca was burrowed from the Greek words oryg-, óryx which also means “kind of marine mammal”.
Where orcas named after the underworld?
Some people also thought that the word orca might have been connected to the Latin word orcus which means underworld.
There is actually no proof of any connection to the naming of the whale, leading to the belief that this idea might just be folk-etymology (false assumption).
The possible connection to the underworld is very fascinating though and it cannot be ruled out completely that some ancient Romans might have also thought about the word orcus when talking about the whales.
There are some clues that might reveal that the word orca was in fact associated with dangerous creatures.
By the 16th century, the word orca had found its way into the English language and turned into the Old English word orc.
It was derived from Middle French orque and Italian orca which both came from the Latin word orca (meaning a kind of whale).
By the mid 17th century this English word came to mean “large marine mammal” or “deadly sea-creature”. And sometimes it was also used to refer to sea monsters.
Another meaning of the Old English word orc from around the 17th century was a mythical evil monstrous humanoid creature or sometimes demon. In this case, it was derived from the Italian word orco which means “man-eating-giant”.
If this sounds familiar to you, it might be because in the saga of the Lord of the Rings J. R. R. Tolkien named his Ogres after the Old English word orc. In this case, orco and orc actually stem from the Latin word Orcus, which means “the underworld” or “of the god Orcus/Pluto”.
Orcus/Pluto was the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Hades who is the god of the underworld.
As you can see, the word orca is associated with deadly sea creatures (orc) and other humanoid monsters (orc, ogre) that are related to the underworld.
This connection seems to have inspired the naming of the scientific genus of the killer whales which was termed Orcinus. This literally means “of the god Orcinus” or “of the kingdom of the dead”.
Thus, the whole scientific name Orcinus Orca actually carries a similar meaning as the name killer whale. The full name can be translated as “whales of the underworld”.
The name orca on its own however literally just means a whale, even though there did seem to be darker associations attached to it.
Should you call killer whales orcas?
Because the name “killer whale” is the common name of the species, it is used more frequently than the name “orca”, which refers to the scientific name and only started to get more popular since the 1960s.
In fact, the name “killer whale” has been used for centuries and even many scientists still use it today. The reason why it became so popular is probably how well it describes the behavior of the species.
Orcas are the only whales/dolphins and the only sea mammals in general that kill other big animals and even whales that are much bigger than themselves. And that often in a very brutal-looking way.
They hunt in groups and cage one animal, often harassing it so long that it dies and they can eat it.
Even though the name “killer whale” accurately describes the animal’s real behavior, some people criticize the use of that name because it might stigmatize the orcas as dangerous and evil monsters and might imply that they should be gotten rid of.
That is why some people strongly advocate not to use the name “killer whale” and instead say “orca”.
Other people stress that the name “killer whale” simply describes what these whales do every day and thus it should not be seen as offensive.
After all, they are predators, just like lions and other hunting animals, and they do in fact play an important role in the marine ecosystems all around the world.
In this video you can hear the opinion of a scientist on the naming issue:
In the end, you can of course decide for yourself which name you think is better to describe these incredible animals. Killer whale and orca are synonyms, so both names can be used interchangeably.
What other names do killer whales/orcas have?
And even if you are not sure about both the name killer whale as well as orca, there are many more English and international names that can be used to refer to these whales (however some are not commonly used anymore).
More English names for killer whales
The name Blackfish was especially popular along the BC coast where many orcas live and simply describes their black color. Interestingly people in St Vincent, Lesser Antilles, also call them Whitefish though.
In Eastern Canada, it was also called Swordfish because of its big sword-like dorsal fin. Other names were simply killer and orc.
Another name that is not used anymore but used to be popular was Grampus, which literally means fat fish (from Latin crassus (“fat”) + piscis (“fish”)) and referred to the big size of the killer whale. Today the name Grampus is used for the Risso’s dolphins instead of the orca.
Names for killer whales in other languages
Killer whales are the only whale species that live in all oceans of the world. That is why many languages have their own way of describing these magnificent predators.
There are three major kinds of names that orcas are called in different languages. In most languages, the name they were given is either a variant of the word orca, refers to the swordlike fin (of the male orcas), or refers to their predatory behavior.
Names that refer to their swordlike fin include the German Schwertwal (“sword-whale”), the Dutch word zvaardwalvis (“sword-whale”), the Canadian French name épaulard (“swordfish”), the French word from France épee de mer (“sword of the sea”) and others.
Names that refer to the orcas predatory behavior include names as the Spanish ballena asesina and Portuguese baleia assassina which both mean “assassin whale”. Similarly, there is a German word called Mörderwal, which also means “murderer whale”.
The Norwegian word Spækhugger even means “blubber chopper”, referring to the fact that the orcas kill other whales. The Danish word hvalhund (“whale-dog”) on the other hand refers to the way these whales hunt in packs like dogs.
In Japanese, one word even describes them as Shachihoko/Shachi (Kanji: 鯱), which means “tiger-fish”(魚 – fish and 虎 – tiger).
And in the native Aleut language of the people of Alaska orcas are called Polossatik, which means “The feared one”.
In fact, the killer whales were tied to many legends of the native people that lived around the British Columbian coast.
For example, the Haida people used the name Ska-ana or Sgaana for the orcas, which means killer demon or supernatural spirit and is related to a killer demon called Skana from Haidan myths.
But there are also some names that show admiration for these animals.
The Ainu people from an island in northern Japan gave the orcas the name repun kamai, which means “master of the open sea” or “god of offshore”.
In the language of the Lummi people, the orca is called qwe lhol mechen, meaning “our relatives that live under the water”.
 Handbook of Marine Mammals: The Second Book of Dolphins and the Porpoises. Editors: Sam H. Ridgway, Richard J. Harrison.