Catherine here again. Wow. I've been holding this one in for a while, waiting for the perfect introduction to write about the etymology of porcelain, and then Nick goes and mentions porcelain figurines of girls and crabs. Could anything be better?
So guess what, Salt readers? Guess where porcelain comes from? Those of you educated in East Coast prep schools, where Latin is still an integral part of middle school education, might recognize that "porcelain" sounds an awful lot like "porcus," the word for pig. (Those not educated in East Coast prep schools might also have guessed it, what with the first three letters being the same as "pork" and all, but whatever. You still should have taken Latin.)
So yes, you're right! It does have to do with pig! But the connection, it seems, is not as obvious. See, the ancient Italians apparently decided that porcelain's smooth, shiny suface, bore a striking resemblance to cowrie shells--those smooth, shiny shells that look kind of like little change purses. I'll find a picture.
But wait, Catherine, you're saying. A cowrie shell isn't a pig--where are we going with this? Ah, patience, my dears--the ancient Italians apparently spent a lot of time comparing unrelated objects, because the word for cowrie shell itself is related to the word for pig. And why's that? Because the ancient Romans, sick linguists that they were, thought that cowrie shells looked like pig vaginas. Hah! Isn't that the BEST THING EVER??? Think about THAT the next time you take out the fine china! (Then think for a second about why the ancient Romans were spending so much time inspecting pig vaginas to begin with . . . perhaps it's one of the reasons that their civilization didn't make it.)
I've been enjoying this particular etymology for about five weeks now--and my favorite etymological moment was two weeks ago, when I was puking up sushi from food poisoning, was sitting kneeling in front of my friend's toilet bowl, and thought to myself, "Wow, that gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, 'worshipping the porcelain throne.'"