/am"beuhr grees', -gris/, n.
an opaque, ash-colored secretion of the sperm whale intestine, usually found floating on the ocean or cast ashore: used in perfumery.
[1375-1425; < MF ambre gris gray amber (see AMBER); r. late ME imbergres]

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Waxy substance (about 80% cholesterol) formed in the intestine of sperm whales, used chiefly as a spice in the East and for fixing the scent of fine perfumes in the West.

It is thought to form as a collection of feces around indigestible parts of squid and other prey of the whale. Fresh ambergris is soft, black, and smelly; exposed to sunlight, air, and seawater, it hardens, fades, and develops a pleasant scent. It may wash ashore or be found floating or in the bodies of slaughtered whales. Pieces are usually small, but the largest have weighed almost 1,000 lb (450 kg).

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▪ whale by-product
      a solid waxy substance originating in the intestine of the sperm whale (Physeter catodon). In Eastern cultures ambergris is used for medicines and potions and as a spice; in the West it was used to stabilize the scent of fine perfumes (perfume). Ambergris floats and washes ashore most frequently on the coasts of China, Japan, Africa, and the Americas and on tropical islands such as the Bahamas. Because it was picked up as drift along the shores of the North Sea, ambergris was likened to the amber of the same region, and its name is derived from the French words for “gray amber.” Fresh ambergris is black and soft and has a disagreeable odour. When exposed to sun, air, and seawater, however, it hardens and fades to a light gray or yellow, developing a subtle and pleasant fragrance in the process.

      Pieces are usually small, but one chunk found in the Dutch East Indies weighed about 635 kg (1,400 pounds). Ambergris was formerly thought to come from an unknown creature believed, according to a letter of 1696/97 published by the Royal Society of London, “to swarm as bees, on the sea-shore, or in the sea.” It was also thought to be a product of underwater volcanoes or the droppings of a seabird. Marco Polo (Polo, Marco) knew that Oriental sailors hunted the sperm whale for ambergris, but he thought that the whales swallowed it with their food. Ambergris is now thought to be a substance protective against intestinal irritation caused by the indigestible horny beaks of squid and cuttlefish that the sperm whale feeds upon. The whale's intestine can accommodate only small chunks of ambergris, so larger pieces must be regurgitated. It is not known exactly how ambergris is formed or whether the process is normal or pathological, nor has ambergris been found in the sperm whale's closest relatives, the pygmy and dwarf sperm whales (Kogia breviceps and K. simus).

      Chemically, ambergris contains alkaloids (alkaloid), acids (acid), and a specific compound called ambreine, which is similar to cholesterol. Ambergris was commonly ground into a powder and dissolved in dilute alcohol. Rarely used today due to trade restrictions, its unique musky character added a long-lasting bouquet to the scent of essential flower oils, but, more important, ambergris was a fixative that prevented fragrance from evaporating. Some chemical components of ambergris are now produced synthetically.

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Universalium. 2010.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Ambergris — (Ambra grisea, Ambre gris, ambergrease, or grey amber) is a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull gray or blackish color produced in the digestive system of sperm whales. Ambergris has a peculiar sweet, earthy odor (similar to isopropyl… …   Wikipedia

  • ambergris — (n.) early 15c., from M.Fr. ambre gris gray amber (see AMBER (Cf. amber)), a wax like substance of ashy colour, found floating in tropical seas, and as a morbid secretion in the intestines of the sperm whale. Used in perfumery, and formerly in… …   Etymology dictionary

  • Ambergris — Am ber*gris ([a^]m b[ e]r*gr[=e]s), n. [F. ambre gris, i. e., gray amber; F. gris gray, which is of German origin: cf. OS. gr[^i]s, G. greis, gray haired. See {Amber}.] A substance of the consistence of wax, found floating in the Indian Ocean and …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • ambergris — ► NOUN ▪ a wax like substance secreted from the intestines of the sperm whale, found floating in tropical seas and used in perfume manufacture. ORIGIN from Old French ambre gris grey amber …   English terms dictionary

  • ambergris — [am′bərgrēs΄, am′bərgris΄] n. [ME ambregris < OFr ambre gris < ambre (see AMBER) + gris < Frank * grīs, akin to MHG, OS, Du gris, gray] a grayish, waxy substance from the intestines of sperm whales, often found floating in tropical seas …   English World dictionary

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  • ambergris — [15] The original term for ambergris (a waxy material from the stomach of the sperm whale) was amber. But as confusion began to arise between the two substances amber and ambergris, amber came to be used for both in all the languages that had… …   Word origins

  • ambergris — noun A solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull grey or blackish color, produced in the intestines of the sperm whale. It is used in perfumes. And as for the other whale, why, I’ll agree to get more oil by chopping up and trying out these three …   Wiktionary

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