Here is an excerpt from “Abstinence Or Obstinacy?” (The Washington Post; May 17, 2002):

"Soon after, the measure providing more money for President Bush's cherished abstinence-only program sailed out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, heading to the floor, where it passed yesterday. No surprise there. The provision to keep America's teenagers as ignorant as possible about sex -- even, as Capps knows, to teach them what is false -- is embedded in a whale of a bill that contains so much for so many that, should it have failed, it could only meant that our cherished political system has collapsed and reason has triumphed."

I thought that whales were marine mammals!

2 Answers 2


"Whale" here is a metaphor. A metaphor states that one thing is another thing. It equates those two things not because they actually are the same, but for the sake of comparison or symbolism. A whale is a large marine mammal, and the blue whale is the largest of all marine mammals. Also whales eat smaller creatures. To call something a "whale" of a thing is to employ the word as a metaphor to mean it is very big and, perhaps, capable of devouring or hiding many things.

What is a metaphor?

Metaphors relating to animals

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    Why than say “imbedded in a whale” instead “is a whale of” or “is the whale of”?
    – Zak
    Commented Mar 31, 2019 at 11:41
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    The "provision to keep America's teenagers ignorant about sex" is only one thing hidden or buried ("embedded") in a very large bill (piece of proposed legislation). Commented Mar 31, 2019 at 11:43
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    I don't think you need to explain the concept of a metaphor here. It doesn't answer the question, really.
    – paddotk
    Commented Mar 31, 2019 at 15:14
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    I think perhaps the OP is not aware of the "an X of a Y" construction for using metaphors, rather than unaware of metaphors in general. Commented Mar 31, 2019 at 16:38
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    @Zak A “bill” is a proposed law. So when the author says something is “embedded in a whale of a bill”: it is something important, but small, and placed in a huge bill with many other things. A “whale of a bill” means a tremendously huge, long bill. And the item is hidden somewhere in there. Commented Mar 31, 2019 at 17:10

I think you are parsing the phrase wrong, if you think that something is embedded in a whale. It should be read as "embedded in (a whale of a bill)".

As Michael Harvey pointed out, "a whale of a X" is a colloquial expression for "a very large X". So the phrase just says that the provision is embedded in a very large bill.

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