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  • Dulcie Crowther

A Prickly Conversation


Author Kate DiCamillo wrote a fantastic children's book series based on a character named Mercy Watson. Mercy is the love of her parents' life. They sing her to sleep, they make her stacks of hot-buttered toast, and every Saturday, Mr. Watson takes her for a drive in his pink Cadillac. In the adoring eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Watson, Mercy Watson is a "porcine wonder!" Did I forget to mention that Mercy is a pig?



What a great word <porcine>! It is a much gentler way to refer to an overfed dog or a person's eating habits. Something porcine has to do with a pig. The word descends from the Latin word porcus. It's not much of a stretch to get from porcus → porc→ pork. We avoid ending complete English words in <c>, so we swap it out for the <k>. If we do end a word in <c>, it tends to be the shortened form of a word (e.g., sec/second), or a French loan word (e.g., chic, cognac), or the suffix <-ic> (e.g., romantic, poetic). The elegance of the <c> in this word is its flexibility. It can represent /s/ in <porcine>, /tʃ/ (pronounced “ch”) in porcinous words of Italian descent, and /k/ in my favorite related word <porcupine>.


The literal definition of <porcupine> is "quill pig." Its word sum would look like this:

porc + u + pine.

The <u> is a connecting vowel giving the word some flow. But what is the <pine> part?


<porcupine> came from Old French porc-espin, or spine hog, from Latin porcus "young pig" + spina "thorn, spine." Where did the <s> go? Have no fear, I will tell you. When porc-espin passed from Old French to Modern French, it lost its <s>. According to Doug Harper at etymonline.com, the Romans were not fond of producing initial <sp->, <st->, or <sc-> in words, so they added an <e-> to ease their way into the pronunciation, thus <espina>. This spelling/pronunciation passed into Romanic languages, particularly Old French. Over time, <s> was lost in many words due to emphasis on the <e>. Some words eventually had their long, lost <s> returned to them, but this was not the case in <espina>, thus the present-day French <porc-épic> and English <porcupine>. The <s> was retained in Spanish puerco espín and Italian porcospino.


Porcine has other great relatives. A porcini is a mushroom so named in Italian because of its fatness. The word <porpoise> is a combination of the Latin words for "fish" and for "pig." A merpig, if you will. <porcine> is also related to <porcelain>. I'll let you research that independently because I'm keeping this blog G-rated. You can't make this stuff up.


When one starts investigating the word <porcupine>, it doesn't take long, at least in my world, to get to the crucial question about porcupines. How do porcupines procreate with all those barbs? According to National Geographic, "very carefully." But, again, to keep things G-Rated, I'll leave you to your own irresponsible googling. The underlying lesson on this Valentine's Day, ladies? Sometimes us girls have to lay down our quills and set aside our quibbles for the sake of a bit of romance.


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