Harbor Porpoises | WYPR

Harbor Porpoises

Aug 14, 2018

Credit National Geographic

As a former Latin teacher, I’m always interested in the evolution of the English language. Civilizations that we consider to be ancient (or at least unbelievably old) still shape the words and phrases that we use every day. Those ancient people developed some pretty interesting ways of communicating what they were seeing and how they were experiencing the world around them. I’m always struck by the way that cultures from around the world have influenced our modern English language – and the animal kingdom is a great place to see language in action.

One of my favorite fun language tidbits is how often the Greeks, Romans, and a number of subsequent Romance languages, defaulted to pigs when naming other animals. Take, for example, porcupines: porcus from the Roman for “pig” and spinae meaning “spines”. I love how literal translations like this are, and every time I see a porcupine I always laugh that the Romans essentially named this animal a “spine pig”. The least fair of the ancient pig-naming spree must be porpoises. The name porpoise is derived from the Latin porcopiscus, which is a combination of porcus (meaning pig) and piscus (meaning fish). Poor porpoises…or should I say pig fish?