The blue whale was named by the great Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus in 1758. He called it Balaenoptera musculus which means “winged whale, little mouse”. Most authorities suggest that this was intended as a joke by the great taxonomist – the largest animal of all being named after one of the smallest. But musculus also means “muscle” and it is possible that Linnaeus was drawing attention to the whale’s size and power, or even its shape, which, despite its size, is streamlined and slender, rather like a muscle.
The confusion may come from the fact that muscles were also called musculi precisely because they moved like mice under the skin. (Weirdly, this is also where we get the word “musk”. The deer’s musk gland was also thought to resemble a testicle – these also move mouse-like under the skin.)
Another name for the blue whale and its relatives is the rorqual, from the Norwegian röyrkval, which means “furrowed whale”. For a long time the blue whale was known as “Sibbald’s rorqual” after the 17th-century Scottish polymath, Robert Sibbald. He was the first to draw and describe it scientifically after a pair washed up on a Scottish beach.The Latin version, Sibbaldus sulphereus, echoed the old whalers’ name – “sulphur bottom” – mistakenly attributing a yellow colour to the whale’s underbelly which was later shown to be caused by algae.Sibbald was the first recorded casualty of the new game of golf – he was hospitalised by a back swing as he crossed the Links at Leith in 1690.”