white whale

noun

1
2
or less commonly great white whale : something (such as a goal or object) that is obsessively pursued
It was the old man's white whale, the holy grail shining at the end of the dream, on and off the rails, as he chased scripts, directors, and movie stars of the proper magnitude.Rich Cohen
For drug makers, developing the first Alzheimer's therapy has long been seen as the great white whale: the toughest challenge and biggest opportunity.Robert Weisman

Illustration of white whale

Illustration of white whale
  • white whale 1

Examples of white whale in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Since business leaders became serious about getting employees back to offices post-pandemic, the idea of cultivating a work culture that boosts productivity, and the bottom line has been many bosses’ white whale. Trey Williams, Fortune, 6 Feb. 2024 Another white whale of sorts—the identity of the man on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV—also surfaced in 2023. Meilan Solly, Smithsonian Magazine, 26 Dec. 2023 Democrats haven't won North Carolina in a presidential race since 2008. 0:20 Susan Walsh/AP, FILE Democrats are trying again to reel in their white whale of North Carolina this November after years of losses culminated in Republicans clinching a historically strong position to end 2023. Tal Axelrod, ABC News, 7 Jan. 2024 Some other whale had gnawed off Ahab’s leg; the white whale was as innocent as the driven snow. Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, 4 Sep. 2023 Unfortunately, attempts to replicate this white whale in most homes are often futile. Sharon Brandwein, Southern Living, 7 Jan. 2024 Pete Townshend chased his white whale for more than half a century. Gil Kaufman, Billboard, 13 Dec. 2023 At Hi/Fi Tex-Mex BBQ, a meat master takes on his white whale: The smoker 8. Tim Carman, Washington Post, 12 Dec. 2023 How did Napoleon being Kubrick’s white whale inform your own approach? Marlow Stern, Rolling Stone, 24 Nov. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'white whale.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Etymology

(sense 2) after the white sperm whale obsessively hunted by Captain Ahab in Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick (1851)

First Known Use

1635, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of white whale was in 1635

Dictionary Entries Near white whale

Cite this Entry

“White whale.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/white%20whale. Accessed 2 Mar. 2024.

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