Definition of harpoon in English:



  • A barbed spear-like missile attached to a long rope and thrown by hand or fired from a gun, used for catching whales and other large sea creatures.

    • ‘Modern whaling began in 1868, when the harpoon gun and explosive harpoon (which explodes inside the whale) were invented.’
    • ‘Bone was used extensively to make wedges, adzes, hammers, spear heads with link shafts, barbed points and harpoons, eyed needles, and jewellery.’
    • ‘Meals consisted of fish caught with bone harpoons and cooked over a small hearth, as well as rations of palm sugar and fruit.’
    • ‘The harpooneer not only must be ready to throw the harpoon at a moment's notice; he also must keep rowing with everyone else, and be yelling encouragement to everyone else.’
    • ‘The harpoonist leaps from the bows on to the whale, plants his harpoon and slides into the water before scrambling back on board.’
    • ‘The station relied heavily on orcas to herd the southern right whales to the harpoons at the ready.’
    • ‘If he throws the harpoon, the whale must be directly in front of his kayak, about 30 feet away, close but not too close - or the animal's powerful dive will submerge him and he will likely drown.’
    • ‘On May 17, 1999, a week into the hunt, the Makah killed a 30-tonne gray whale, striking it with harpoons and then killing it with a gunshot to the back of the head.’
    • ‘The book vividly recollects a season spent with Tongans, who through economic necessity, still hunt whales from small boats with hand-held harpoons.’
    • ‘Makah whalers threw harpoons on three occasions, but the harpoons did not attach to a gray whale on any of these attempts.’
    • ‘The whale-line is the length of rope attached to the harpoon, which connects the boat to the whale it is following.’
    • ‘With a grenade-tipped harpoon, the whale takes about thirty minutes to die.’
    • ‘The Inuit still love in the remote Greenland in an ‘ice age culture that began 4000 years ago ’, and they hunt with harpoons, wear skins and fur of hunted animals and travel by dog sleds.’
    • ‘The size and speed of blue whales once served to discourage human whalers in the days of sail-powered ships and hand-thrown harpoons.’
    • ‘He could throw a 40-pound harpoon with line attached as easily as an athlete could handle a javelin.’
    • ‘The Norse, because of their bad attitude towards the Inuit did not adopt useful Inuit technology, so the Norse never adopted harpoons, hence they couldn't eat whales like the Inuit.’
    • ‘The line attached to the harpoon, which keeps the whale boat in contact with the whale, it snaps tight when the harpoon has been thrown successfully.’
    • ‘Animal rightists hurled themselves between the harpoons and the whale in an effort to save its life.’
    • ‘The Thule already had characteristics of culture common to Inuit culture: the use of dogs, sleds, kayaks, and whale hunting with harpoons.’
    • ‘People have hunted swordfish throughout history using harpoons and conventional fishing lines.’
    spear, trident, arrow, dart, barb
    gaff, leister
    View synonyms


  • Spear with a harpoon.

    ‘Gilbert's father harpooned a five-metre basking shark’
    • ‘Government-owned radio RTHK said Lever tried to harpoon the croc but missed because it was too far away.’
    • ‘Japan claims it needs to harpoon the whales and dissect them to determine migration patterns as well as gain data on their feeding and breeding habits.’
    • ‘For a monarch caterpillar, ingesting milkweed poisons is not a surefire defense against a predatory stinkbug, which harpoons its victims before sucking up the body fluids.’
    • ‘While I was there, I was invited aboard a catcher boat, which hunts and harpoons whales.’
    • ‘When a whale was sighted in the bay, boats from the rival stations would race to be the first to harpoon the animal.’


Early 17th century (denoting a barbed dart or spear): from French harpon, from harpe dog's claw, clamp, via Latin from Greek harpē sickle.