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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 Porcelain is known as “china” because it was originally made in China; Portuguese traders introduced it to Europe in the 16th century and dubbed it “porcelain,” but it wasn’t actually manufactured in Europe until the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.


Heads I win, tails you ask Jesse Sheidlower.

Dear Word Detective: Do you know where the word “umpire” originated, and how? I think I know this one, but I’d like to find out if I’m right. — Karen De La Vergne, Anderson, Indiana.

You know, there’s something about the way you’ve phrased your question that makes me feel a bit like a cross between the Wizard of Oz and Monty Hall. Your faith in my ability to divine the right answer to your query is touching, yet I fear that you may be expecting a prize of some sort once we’re done. If so, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. I used to give away a cat for every question I answered, but now we’re down to just two (cats, not questions, God knows, I’ve got a pile of those you wouldn’t believe, except that since you all sent them to me, perhaps you would), both of whom (the cats) seem to be firmly bolted to the sofa.

Onward. The original form of “umpire” in English was the 14th century English word “noumpere,” from the French words for “not a peer,” and that takes some explaining. “Peer” in this sense means “equal,” or someone who has a stake in the matter at hand. Today we may think of umpires primarily as the beleaguered mediators of baseball games, but the original role of an “umpire” was to serve as an impartial arbitrator of legal disputes. This legal function still exists, although the umpires are usually called “arbitrators.” Naturally, the arbitrator, like the umpire in a baseball game, must be rigorously impartial and not a “peer,” or member of either team, for the process to work.

Now the curious thing about “noumpere” is that it only looks a little like “umpire.” It begins with an “n,” for example — where did that go? Well, it drifted, through a linguistic process called “metanalysis,” in which letters from one word migrate over time to a neighboring word. So “a noumpere” in the 14th century became “an umpere”in the 15th century and finally, by the early 17th century, “an umpire.” A similar metanalytic process transformed “a napron” (related to “napkin”) to our modern “an apron” and “a nadder” became that slithery menace, “an adder.”

To be hoist by one’s own petard

On top of which it annoys those of us who really do know everything.

Dear Word Detective: After an exhausting weekend with a friend who knows EVERYTHING, I would be very grateful if you could give me the meaning of the phrase “Hoist one’s own petard.” Does it come from one of Shakespeare’s plays, and what is the meaning of “petard” — is it a sword, or is it a weapon from the Middle Ages? My honor is in your hands. — Mangisafi.

Exhausting is right. Have you ever noticed that those know-it-alls usually begin their sentences with the word “actually” to let you know that whatever you just said is complete nonsense, probably something you read on a cereal box or overheard in line at the 7-11? “Actually,” they sneer, “comet Hale-Bopp is made of ice and dust, not lint, and, being millions of miles away, cannot possibly be clogging the fuel pump on your car.” Sure, right. Like they know all about what certain comets can do.

In any case, I hope I’m coming down on your side of the argument when I tell you that a “petard” was a medieval weapon, specifically a small bomb used to blow open the gates of a castle under siege. The word “petard” (you can reveal this oh-so-casually to your friend) comes from the French word for “to break wind.” Petards, handy tools for those in the looting and pillaging business, did have a down side, however. They sometimes malfunctioned, “hoisting” (blowing skyward) the “engineers” delegated to plant the devices.

The phrase you’re thinking of, by the way, is “to be hoist by one’s own petard,” and does indeed come from Shakespeare, Act III of “Hamlet” to be precise. Hamlet, having sidestepped an assassination plot by having the unwitting bearers of the assassination order themselves “whacked,” muses on the justice of the moment: “‘Tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petard.” This metaphorical use of the phrase to mean “someone being ruined or destroyed by the very plans or weapons they intended to use on someone else” has been popular since Shakespeare’s time. Oddly enough, the only modern example of the “hoist by one’s own petard” phenomenon that I can think of at the moment would be those cartoons about the roadrunner and the homicidal coyote. Not exactly Hamlet, I’ll admit, but there you have it.