1830, shortening of spermaceti whale
(so called because the waxy substance in its head was mistaken for sperm), from spermaceti
(1471), from M.L. sperma ceti
"sperm of a whale," from L. sperma
) + cetus
"large sea animal" (see Cetacea
). The substance in olden times was credited with medicinal properties, as well as being used for candle oil.
"Use ... Sperma Cete ana with redd Wyne when ye wax old." [Sir George Ripley, "The Compound of Alchemy," 1471]