Monday, January 29, 2007

This Little Piggy

The word part -porc- comes from the Latin word porcus, a hog or pig. It’s easy to see that our word pork descends from that word. But there are some offbeat words and a few surprises in words that use this letter combination.

Here are some words that are fairly obvious.

• Porculation is the feeding and fattening of pigs; no surprise there, although I’ve never encountered the term before.
• Porknell is an obsolete term for a fat or greedy person.
• Porkopolis is a nickname for a city prominent in the pork-packing industry. (Remember Carl Sandburg’s poem Chicago?)
• Porcine is the adjective used to describe a pig, on the model of canine or feline.

Now for some surprises--well, for some of us.
• Porpoise was formed from the Latin words for pig and fish; it was called a hog-fish in an 8th century glossary.
• Porcupine comes from two Latin words signifying “a spiny pig.”
• A porcelet is a woodlouse. The fact that it comes from “little pig” has a speculative--but fascinating--origin. The French used the term porcelet Saint-Antoine (St. Anthony’s piglet) to denote a woodlouse, and it seems to be because of the unrealistically small size of the pig depicted in many paintings of the saint. St. Anthony was originally a swineherd, so he has been designated as the patron saint of pigs.
• Porcelain comes from a word meaning mollusk, probably because people saw a resemblance to the color of a pig in the translucent surface of the shell.

SIDEBAR: pig breeds

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