wail on my pecs [whale on / wale on]

arueng

Senior Member
Chinese
'I'm going to wail on my pecs, and then I'm going to do my back.'


Hi,

I ran across the above in the film American Beauty. What do "wail on my pecs" and "do my back" refer to? Thanks.
 
  • Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    It's weightlifting.

    CAROLYN: What the hell do you think you're doing?
    LESTER: Bench presses. I'm going to wail on my pecs, and then I'm going to do my back.

    It means I'm going to give my pecs (pectoral muscles) a real workout, then I'm going to do exercises to build up my back muscles.
     

    Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    Where does that use of "wail" come from, Copyright?

    There's a good question. I've only heard it spoken, not written -- as in "I'm going to wail on your ass" -- so I spent a little time trying to find out if there were other spellings. Since I couldn't find any, I studiously ignored it. :)

    I have a feeling it's uniquely American -- and fairly common.
     

    arueng

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    Thanks, Mar and Copyright, for the clear explanation.

    I guess "wail my pecs" comes from "give my pecs a real workout until it wails," right?
     

    Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    Thanks, Mar and Copyright, for the clear explanation.

    I guess "wail my pecs" comes from "give my pecs a real workout until it wails," right?

    Well, maybe not. I don't think it matches the dictionary definition of "wail." I've always taken it to mean to give a good beating or pounding or drubbing to.

    I did look it up before answering because I don't recall seeing the word (in this definition) in print. But none of the variants I tried (even going so far as to check "whale") seemed quite right, either. So i guess it's "wail" unless someone turns up something better. That's certainly the way it appears in the script.

    On, and it's not "wail my pecs" but "wail on my pecs" -- the "on" is mandatory.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    In my part of the world, the verb "whale" is used - and it's almost certainly relevant.

    From the OED:
    1. To beat, flog, thrash.
    2. To do something implied by the context continuously or vehemently.

    It's labelled "US colloquial", but it may have moved there from here.
     

    Jack41Klompus

    New Member
    English, USA
    In 80s and 90s USA, If someone were to "wail" on another person, that means they beat them up in a fight. If they're playing a video game, if one person destroys or overkills the other guy, that means he "wailed" on him.

    Lester meant he was going to intensely concentrate on his pecs while working out. "Wailing" on ones pecs means to damage them--which is how muscle is built bigger and stronger.
     
    Today's Washington Post describing a ruckus on a passenger plane:

    Violence that police said left a man with a swollen eye and a chipped tooth is mostly hidden by a seat from Krause’s camera. But he described it:

    “The taller guy gets his feet under him,” he said. “He flings, wrestles the shorter guy down, who fell on top of the lady, who fell on top of the flight attendant. And the tall guy just starts wailing on the shorter guy.”

    The sense is reported by Jack41, above.

    Does this occur in the UK?
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    I'm fairly sure I've heard give someone a good whaling (or wailing), but not the verb whale on (or wail on).
    (I associate it with whales rather than wails:cool:)

    EDIT: Ah! see post #8.
     

    Scott AM

    Senior Member
    English - Canada
    The spelling issue is discussed in another thread. I retract my post that 'wail' spelling is nonstandard.

    "whale on" or "wail on" [wale on]

    Sorry, I'm a bit confused. In that thread, you said (correctly, in my view) that "wail" is nonstandard, based a homophone issue - the standard "whale" and "wale" both sound like "wail", causing confusion for many. Or are you saying that because so many people say "wail" these days, it should now be standard?
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    In my part of the world, the verb "whale" is used - and it's almost certainly relevant.

    From the OED:
    1. To beat, flog, thrash.
    2. To do something implied by the context continuously or vehemently.

    It's labelled "US colloquial", but it may have moved there from here.

    We only hear "whale on" to mean beat, flog, or pummel.

    In the USA we would morel likely hear, "I'm gonna hit my pecs hard at the gym tonight."
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    This is all new to me.

    I've never heard any such phrase, either "wall on" or "w(h)ale", etc. and would have had no idea what it was supposed to mean.:confused:

    I've heard it spoken many times; I had no idea how it was spelled until just now: Whale, wail, wale. For some reason I assumed it was the first option.

    And a Google search shows it is not a extremely recent phrase. This from Huck Finn:

    Pap he hadn't been seen for more than a year, and that was comfortable for me; I didn't want to see him no more. He used to always whale me when he was sober and could get his hands on me; though I used to take to the woods most of the time when he was around.
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    I've heard it spoken many times; I had no idea how it was spelled until just now: Whale, wail, wale. For some reason I assumed it was the first option.

    And a Google search shows it is not a extremely recent phrase. This from Huck Finn:

    Pap he hadn't been seen for more than a year, and that was comfortable for me; I didn't want to see him no more. He used to always whale me when he was sober and could get his hands on me; though I used to take to the woods most of the time when he was around.


    One site suggested that the old term for "welt" (from perhaps a whipping) was "wael" and that was the source for the word. It sounded more like a guess than an etymology.
     

    jmichaelm

    Senior Member
    English - US
    Growing up in the 70s in the US, "wail on" meant do anything with great intensity as well as "beat physically". I also only remember hearing it spoken and so can't say with any authority how it should be spelled.
     
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    kentix

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    It's definitely slangy so I never saw it written. For whatever reason, I always assumed it was spelled whale.
     

    Scott AM

    Senior Member
    English - Canada
    I personally believe that's one of the main reasons why there are multiple spellings - whale/wale/wail - for the same thing. Most people first heard the phrase when they were young, and in conversational form, so they assumed it to be recent, slang, usage. One contributor to a discussion I read essentially said that - that seeing as how "wail" is not grammatical, it doesn't matter how you spell it.

    Well, the verb is grammatical, and as we've seen, it has been around for quite a while. Nonetheless, confusion still surrounds it. It's especially interesting to read the "which is really correct - wale or whale" discussions, because both end up making sense, and both sides provide proof.
     

    RM1(SS)

    Senior Member
    English - US (Midwest)
    I've known the term at least since the '70s, and have always understood it to be "whale." And those who think it's "wale" have another think coming. :D:p

    One site suggested that the old term for "welt" (from perhaps a whipping) was "wael" and that was the source for the word.

    I associate 'wale' with corduroy, and according to the WRF dictionary the term for the ridges in the fabric and for the ridges raised by a whip comes from that same root.
     

    jmichaelm

    Senior Member
    English - US
    Did you ever see this written back then? Or just spoken.
    Only spoken (my edit came in after you asked)

    Here's one more twist: In the hard rock circles in which I socialized during my teens we often referred to guitars we liked as "wailing" and admired anyone who "wailed on" a solo. To my young mind this was no different than the other usages of "wail on" which all meant to be deeply, emotionally invested in a physical activity. And of course describing a guitar as wailing was accepted as the norm to us because of the Beatles.
     
    Agreed, 'wale/wail on' has extensive figurative usage, meaning "to address or attack [figuratively][= engage with great energy], with fervor and some degree of skill/effectiveness."

    This is no different from saying, Bon Jovi just killed that instrumental break!

    From Cambridge, a related figurative meaning of 'kill':

    kill verb (ENTERTAIN)
    [ T ] mainly US informal to make someone laugh a lot:

    That comedian kills me.
    ===

    I don't think this is quite accurate. 'That comedian greatly affects and overwhelms me' would be better.
    .


    Only spoken (my edit came in after you asked)

    Here's one more twist: In the hard rock circles in which I socialized during my teens we often referred to guitars we liked as "wailing" and admired anyone who "wailed on" a solo. To my young mind this was no different than the other usages of "wail on" which all meant to be deeply, emotionally invested in a physical activity. And of course describing a guitar as wailing was accepted as the norm to us because of the Beatles.
     

    kentix

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    Something that wails creates a sound - a person or a guitar, for instance. Whale on is completely different. It's something one person does to another person and doesn't describe a sound. It simply means pummel. I see no relation between the two except this - if you whale on your guitar with skill you can make it wail.
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    Something that wails creates a sound - a person or a guitar, for instance. Whale on is completely different. It's something one person does to another person and doesn't describe a sound. It simply means pummel. I see no relation between the two except this - if you whale on your guitar with skill you can make it wail.

    I suspect that this is a distinction in your logical mind but it may not extend to the rest of the world. I follow the logic. I also follow the logic of the "wael" meaning "welt", and the "wales" from corduroy fabrics, but none of them are persuasive enough for me to pick one spelling over another.

    I will still with Mark Twain's "whale" spelling noted in my post #19 as the oldest in-print version I can find.
     
    Packard, your Mark Twain quote got me to thinking.

    I now seem to recall, and I think uttered by rural folk when I was little, the expression "I got/he got a whalin'." I understood it to be some kind of spanking, although, let's face it, in those days that was sometimes done with a strap, belt, or cane, not necessarily just with the hand.
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    Packard, your Mark Twain quote got me to thinking.

    I now seem to recall, and I think uttered by rural folk when I was little, the expression "I got/he got a whalin'." I understood it to be some kind of spanking, although, let's face it, in those days that was sometimes done with a strap, belt, or cane, not necessarily just with the hand.

    And a strap could leave a welt and a welt comes from the old spelling "wael" and we are back in a circle again. I think we should agree that the origin and correct spelling are subject to speculation, but there is no consensus on either.


    (And, yes I recall that "whalin'" phrase too.)
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    But would you agree a wailing guitar is unrelated?

    It seems unrelated to me. As does the corduroy wale. Or a baby's wailing. Different words with different origins and different meanings in my opinion.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    ...

    I will still with Mark Twain's "whale" spelling noted in my post #19 as the oldest in-print version I can find.
    There's an older one in the linked thread, MrP;)
    Here's what the OED says about "whale" = beat, flog, thrash
    [...]
    The first citation dates back to 1790:
    1790 F. Grose Provinc. Gloss. (ed. 2) Whale, to beat with a horsewhip or pliant stick.
    1801 G. Hanger Life II. 162 Whaleing a gentleman is but a vulgar revenge.
    1884 ‘M. Twain’ Adventures Huckleberry Finn iii. 30 He used to always whale me when he was sober and could get his hands on me.
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    ...

    There's an older one in the linked thread, MrP;)

    Thanks. Also with the "whale" spelling. This only serves to reinforce my "whaling on my neighbors for their loud music" instead of "wailing on" them for the same.
     
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