Made from pork, so to speak

The last post dealt with descendants of the Indo-European root *porko-, including Spanish puerco and English pork and farrow. Now let’s look at a couple of interesting derivatives of Latin porcus, the ancestor of Spanish puerco. Porcus gave rise to the Old Italian diminutives porcello ‘a young [male] pig,’ and porcella ‘a young sow.’ From the latter came the adjective porcellana ‘having to do with a young sow.’ Italian took to using porcellana figuratively as a name for ‘a cowry shell,’ some feature of which must have seemed to resemble a young sow. The American Heritage Dictionary says it was the curved back of the young sow, but other sources cite the claim that a more intimate part of the sow’s anatomy was the inspiration. Be that as it may, Old French adopted the Italian word as porcelaine and extended the meaning to something that resembled a cowry shell, namely, in the definition of the AHD, ‘a hard, white, translucent ceramic made by firing a pure clay and then glazing it with variously colored fusible materials.’ English has dropped the -e of porcelaine, and Spanish has barely changed Italian porcellana to porcelana.

The other picturesque derivative goes back to the Vulgar Latin compound *porcospinus, literally ‘spiny pig,’ a name for the sharp-quilled rodent that we now call a puerco espín/porcupine, with the English form coming from Old French porc espin.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Nov 09, 2013 @ 21:44:05

    There was a time when a porcelain complexion was considered a mark of status and great beauty. I can’t help thinking that some young ladies of the time might not have been amused by the connection between their sought-after appearance and young sows, even if the connection was only etymological

    And speaking of young ladies, four of us won the 7th grade HomeEc “Food Creativity” contest by making our Porcupine meatballs with half pork and half beef, instead of all beef. Nouvelle cuisine at its best, believe me.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Nov 11, 2013 @ 08:22:55

      Ah, the female side of things: both you and Kathryn Ingrid likened porcelain to complexions. I’ve heard of that description, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me. Porcupine meatballs, on the other hand, are something I’ve never heard of.


  2. kathryningrid
    Nov 10, 2013 @ 23:15:39

    How is it that I never made the connection between porcine and porcelain? I shall be proud, hereafter, to think my complexion pretty as a pig’s. 🙂


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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