From the Cambridge dictionary "calve" means:

Calve: When a cow calves, it gives birth to a calf (= a young cow):

But I've read somewhere that:

Humans have encroached on open seas and eradicated calving areas of giant marine animals.

Is the phrase "calving areas" used correctly in this sentence? According to the dictionary, calve means giving birth to a calf, but in this sentence it talks about whales.

Do all mammals calve, or only cows calve?

  • There are other large marine animals so how do we know this is about whales?
    – mdewey
    Dec 21, 2020 at 17:30
  • @mdewey: Other large marine mammals, such as walruses, also have calves: livescience.com/27442-walrus-facts.html Other marine animals usually don't give live birth.
    – jamesqf
    Dec 21, 2020 at 19:36

2 Answers 2


Do all mammals calve, or only cows calve?


The term "calve" was first used of cows, but it has long been used of whales giving birth, and a young whale is called a "calf". The term might be used for a few other animals, but is not used for most mammals. Dogs "whelp", horses "foal", and sheep "drop a lamb" but the season when they do so is "lambing time". Cats, foxes, rodents, and some others are said to "litter". I think that "whelp" is also used of wolves.

In all these cases "give birth" may be used instead.

The verb "calve" is also used when an iceberg breaks off from the parent glacier, as by analogy the iceberg is "born". "Calve" is also used in some other cases where a smaller thing breaks off from a larger. I believe it is sometimes used of comets, for example.

Dictionary.com defines the verb "calve" as:

verb (used without object), calved, calv·ing.

  • to give birth to a calf: -- The cow is expected to calve tomorrow.
  • (of a glacier, an iceberg,> etc.) to break up or splinter so as to produce a detached piece.

verb (used with object), calved, calv·ing.

  • to give birth to (a calf).
  • (of a > glacier, an iceberg, etc.) to break off or detach (a piece):

-- The > glacier calved an iceberg.

There is a very similar definition from American Heritage and one from Collins and one from Oxford/Lexico

I think this verb should not be used in general for "to give birth to" but only with certain specific kinds of animals (cows, whales, elephants, etc) and with a few kinds of objects where a smaller fragment breaks off of a larger, mostly n glaciers and things thought to act in a way similar way to glaciers.

This Ngram suggests that "calve" is significantly less common than "give birth to" or spawn". This one shows similar results for the gerund forms.

  • 16
    @T.J.L. Neither is the response to the final question "Do all mammals calve, or only cows calve?". That is, the term does not apply only to cows, but does not apply to all mammals either. Dec 21, 2020 at 14:57
  • 3
    @Mike Brockington I don't think so. Dictionary defs do not support this as appropriate for any birthing event in general. See the edited answer for one example. Dec 21, 2020 at 17:23
  • 8
    @MikeBrockington "Large marine mammals" giving birth in the open sea is pretty specific. There aren't many marine mammals to begin with. Some of them are small (otters) or give birth on land (polar bears, seals). All of the ones that can be described as large and give birth in the open water also have the specific word calf for their young. Specifically, whales, dolphins, and manatees. Dec 21, 2020 at 20:40
  • 3
    @MikeBrockington No, not really. If the young are called calves, then giving birth is called ‘calving’. Young cetaceans (like most marine mammals) are called calves, ergo whales ‘calve’ instead of giving birth (as do dolphins, though that confuses people a bit because they associate ‘calve’ with ‘young bovid’ and thus ‘young large animal’). Dec 22, 2020 at 2:14
  • 3
    @MikeBrockington good luck with telling your wife "congratulations on calving us another kid". Let us know how it goes. Dec 23, 2020 at 1:55

It's correctly used:

American Heritage Dictionary "calf"

1.a. A young cow or bull.
b. One of the young of certain other mammals, such as moose, elephants, or whales.

[emphasis added]

Interestingly, even glaciers are said to calve:
(from the same dictionary)
3. A large floating chunk of ice split off from a glacier, iceberg, or floe.

  • 1
    The pattern seems to be that relatively large animals have calves (moose being one of the largest in the deer family). And icebergs and glaciers are large structures of ice.
    – Barmar
    Dec 21, 2020 at 15:05
  • 1
    @Barmar: I think it's not so much large, as large and not familiar enough to have a special word in English. E.g. horses have foals, deer have fawns, but elephants, hippos, and so on have calves. Likewise unfamiliar small animals are often said to have pups.
    – jamesqf
    Dec 21, 2020 at 17:05
  • 1
    @Barmar The pattern is that mammals for which the young are known as calves ‘calve’. This includes cetaceans (including the little ones), pinnipeds, sirenians, pachyderms, and a large selection of ungulates (including bovids, rhinoceri, hippopotami, most cervids, and most tylopods, as well as a few others I’m probably missing) Dec 22, 2020 at 2:12
  • 2
    @AustinHemmelgarn I think the correlation between the noun and verb is too obvious to even mention.
    – Barmar
    Dec 22, 2020 at 4:01
  • @AustinHemmelgarn: The comment that you're replying to says "have calves", not "calve".
    – ruakh
    Dec 22, 2020 at 22:40

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