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shameless pleading

Porcelain

Miss Piggy approves.

Dear Word Detective: I just learned that the word “porcelain” derives from the Latin word for “pig.” There HAS to be an interesting story behind this. Would you please tell it? — Holger, Germany.

Well, we can always hope. But I’ve learned from experience that what I consider “interesting” stories about word origins often produce glazed eyes and long sighs from listeners at parties and family gatherings. Sometimes I actually have to toss in a few spurious sailors and Medieval peasants to forestall an impromptu slumber party.

But hey, who among us doesn’t enjoy a good pig story, eh? And pigs have certainly left their mark on English idioms, although rarely as compliments to the pigs themselves. We speak of living “high off the hog” when we’re prosperous, a phrase referring to the fact that the choicest cuts of the poor pig come from high on its side. But the traditional diet of the pig, kitchen waste, we use as a synonym for something worthless: “hogwash.” While pigs are now known to be among the most intelligent animals, we call a stupid and stubborn person “pigheaded,” and although pigs are rather clean animals when allowed to run free, we call a messy house a “pigpen” or “pigsty.” We even blame the innocent pig for our own poor judgment. We speak of purchasing something of unknown quality as “buying a pig in a poke,” referring to the old scam of selling what is supposedly a suckling pig in a bag (“poke”) to someone too lazy to open and inspect the bag, which actually contains a very angry stray cat. (The same racket gave us “Let the cat out of the bag” meaning to reveal a secret.)

Meanwhile, back at “porcelain,” the American Heritage Dictionary defines the stuff as “A hard, white, translucent ceramic made by firing a pure clay and then glazing it with variously colored fusible materials; china.” Porcelain is known as “china” because it was originally made in China; Portuguese traders introduced it to Europe in the 16th century and dubbed it “porcelain,” but it wasn’t actually manufactured in Europe until the 18th century.

As appealing as it is to imagine our beleaguered porcine pals finally getting some respect and being served dinner on fine china, the “pig-porcelain” connection is actually one step removed from high-end dinnerware. Our English word “porcelain” is derived from the Middle French “porcelaine,” which came from the Italian “porcellana.” That “pocellana” denoted what we call “china,” but it also meant the shell of the mollusk native to the Indian Ocean known as a “cowrie” (from the Hindi “kauri”), whose small, very shiny shells were used as money at one time in that part of the world. Apparently the ceramic “porcelain” was named because its shiny finish resembled that of a cowrie shell. The cowrie shell, in turn, was called “pocellana” because “porcella” in Italian means “young sow” (from the Latin “porcus,” meaning “pig”), and the cowrie shell was thought to resemble, in some way, a small, plump pig. So the “pig” connection is really between the shell and the sow, and has nothing directly to do with fine china.

That’s a bit of a disappointment, but as a consolation prize we have two other words somewhat surprisingly also derived from “porcus.” One is “porcupine,” which came from the Vulgar Latin “porcospinus,” meaning literally “spiny pig.” The other is “porpoise,” derived from the Old French “porpais,” meaning “pork fish,” probably a reference to the resemblance of Flipper’s nose to the snout of a pig.

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