The internet black hole I traveled down this morning led me to the website of the French Academy - the body that governs over the French language.
Being word nerds, the Academy has added a "to say and not say" blog to their site which includes posts ranging from reflections on the politicization of the French language in Algeria to burns about French organizations using English words for slogans to straight up grids of how to correctly and incorrectly use French words. I'm actually pretty impressed by the shade the Academy throws. It's harsh. For example, here is the French Academy's reaction to the recently unveiled slogan for Paris 2024 Olympic bid, "Made for Sharing" (the slogan is not translated - it is a slogan in English):
"What can be said about "Made for Sharing," the slogan chosen to promote Paris as the candidate for the 2024 Olympic Games? Are we so ashamed of our language that we dare not use it? Do we think that they can rally a people behind this project by refusing to speak the people's language? Is there no other way to distinguish ourselves from our main competitor, [Los Angeles,] besides borrowing its language? Is it logical to say that we are "made for sharing" if we do not want to communicate with others in our own language? Is this not treating francophones from other countries who love our language with contempt? Is this not forgetting Article 24 of the Olympic Charter which states that the official languages of the International Olympic Committee are French and English? Is this not forgetting that the modern Olympic Games were revived by a Frenchman?"
But nerd burns are not why we are here. Paris's Olympic bid slogan had no true bearing on the day-to-day lives of anglophones. I have uncovered something on the Academy's blog, however, that I think is very pertinent to life in the English-speaking world. This information has been hidden in plain sight for centuries, and it is high time we uncover it.
Sometimes you do things without questioning them. I eat off of porcelain plates pretty much every night. I was gifted a set of china from my mom when she moved on to more modern place settings and I said to myself, "Why wait until the holidays? We might as well eat off of fine china every day." We also use our silver at every meal. Why the hell not? We're washing everything by hand anyway (someday we'll have a dishwasher...), so why not go ahead and make every meal feel special? It occurred to me today, however, that all this time I've been eating off porcelain plates, I've never questioned the etymology of the word porcelain. You should always question the things you do without thinking.
The French Academy's blogopened my eyes to my go-along-to-get-along attitude towards the word porcelain. If you look at the word a little closer, you can see a little "porc" hiding there. Could there be some relationship between porcelain... and pigs?
This is a warning. Once you know the etymology of a word, it can never be unknown.
The word porcelain comes to us from the French. Here is what that French Academy has to say for itself: The noun porc [which translates to pig or pork] comes to us from the latin word porcus, which describes a domesticated pig, male or female. However, Latin speakers also used the word porcus in vernacular language to designate the vulva of the sow. From there, it was used to describe women's genitals. From there, they used the word porcus to name a type of shellfish that has a shell shaped in a way that is evocative of a woman's sex. This shellfish is known in French as a porcelaine. This word came to us from the Italian porcellana, which also describes the shellfish, but translates literally to "vulva of a sow." Because the shell of this shellfish is particularly shiny, Italians named the shiny earthenware brought into Italy from China after the shellfish.
These are porcellana - or cowrie shells in English. What's their scientific name, you ask? It's Cypraea - the Latin nickname for the Goddess of love Aphrodite/Venus (did you know she was born on the island of Cyprus?). There are so many references to vaginas connecting pigs, shells, and plates! Vaginas connect us all!! Wikipediagoes so far as to say that the word porcelain comes to us "from the old Italian porcellana (cowrie shell) because of its resemblance to the translucent surface of the shell," but it stops there. Take a risk, Wikipedia! Tell us the truth!
This is all to say that when you eat off of chinaware you can go ahead as say that you are eating off a sow's vulva. Bring it up at your next formal dinner party. I think it will go over well.