Final Thoughts on the Meaning of Porcus

John Byron Kuhner
Mar 25 · 8 min read
Can we pin down that this is a sus, and not a porcus? (source)

Just about two months ago, I wrote an article claiming that the word porcus in Latin does not really mean “pig” (the word for that in Classical Latin being sus) but rather refers to the young of pigs. The article was, in general, well-received. There were several responses, among them one which was kindly submitted to this journal by Adam Gitner, a fellow at the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, who learnedly defended the TLL’s approach to the word porcus, which I had found insufficiently precise, in the process giving a good explanation of how TLL entries work and what kind of choices lexicographers working there have to make. After the piece had gone around the internet and received comments in multiple fora, I saw one Latin teacher proclaim, “Now I don’t know what to think!”

I do not wish the hesitancy of the TLL response to obscure just how clear the evidence is that porcus means specifically the young of pigs. After having reviewed the evidence once more, I wish to restate my conclusions: 1) the first meaning of the word porcus, the standard meaning, the one found in the Classical authors, and the one which should be presumed in any context unless there is evidence to the contrary, is “piglet” or “young pig.” It can be defined in Latin as “proles suis” or “sus iuvenis.” 2) the word maybe can be used more generally for “pig,” but it is possible that many of these usages have shades of meaning which differ from sus. 3) the word sus appears to drop out of Christian Latin — it is entirely absent from the Vulgate — and is replaced by porcus in later Latin, which caused the current lexical confusion.

Here is the evidence in brief:

1) from Indo-European: as the TLL itself cites, the Indo-European root “porko-” means “sus iuvenis,” and words with this meaning can be found in Persian, Lithuanian, Irish, and the modern Germanic languages (Ferkel is “piglet” in German).

2) from the pre-Classical Latin authors. The use of porcus in Cato and Plautus is disputed, so I will return to it later. But I believe they use the word to mean “piglet” and not adult pigs.

3) from the Classical Latin authors. The Classical authors are generally considered standard for Latin lexicography, and there are no instances of porcus clearly meaning an adult pig in any usage before Juvenal.

4) from the agricultural authors Varro and Columella (and Cato). The agricultural authors use the words sus and porcus precisely and consistently to mean “pig in general” and “young pig specifically.”

5) from analogy: Latin has words from different roots to differentiate between young and adult sheep (agnus/ovis), goats (haedus/caper), and cattle (vitulus/bos). And the Classical authors use porcus/sus in precisely the same way, and indeed in parallel formation with those words.

6) from other words: as I noted in my previous essay, this distinction helps to clear up why the Romans distinguished between subulcus (herder of adult pigs) and porculator (seller of young pigs) and why they distinguished between caro suina (meat from adult pigs) and caro porcina (meat from young piglets, “suckling pigs”).

7) from previous work in Latin lexicography: when I wrote my article, I knew that Emile Benveniste had claimed that porcus really meant young pig. The work of many other lexicographers has now been brought to my attention, preeminently the work of Ludwig van Doderlein, who insisted that porcus meant “young pig.” Others have pointed out Robert Estienne’s Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (1532), which (by necessity, the meaning of the word being what it is) offers mostly examples where porcus has to mean a young pig; and others.


This is already a fair amount of evidence. Let me turn for a moment to the pre-Classical Latin authors. Gitner cites these authors as limiting the conclusions the TLL can come to about the actual meaning of porcus because the TLL is committed to a chronological framework for defining words. Gitner’s conclusion, looking at the evidence, is that we cannot always conclude that porcus always refers to a piglet in these early authors. It is impossible to disagree with this conclusion; the definition of a word cannot be derived from every isolated usage. But let us start with Cato, an author with whom I am familiar. Gitner offers only one usage of the word (more on that later), but Cato uses the word not once but thirteen times. As I write in my article:

Cato frequently describes piglet-sacrifice, together with the young of other animals (“Ubi porcum inmolabis, agnum vitulumque, sic oportet”).

That instance probably refers to the young of a pig, as it is used in parallel with other terms definitively meaning young. In eleven other instances, Cato uses porcus (and porca) to refer to a sacrificial animal in a rural context. The most common sacrificial animal on a farm was a young animal, for multiple reasons: cost, ease of manipulation (an individual would have a hard time killing a 600 pound pig at an altar), and the simple fact that animals often produce more young than can be raised in a given year — meaning that some have to be slaughtered anyway.

The last example from Cato is the one Gitner cites:

Cato De Agricultura 150.2: porcos serarios in oves denas singulos pascat. “he may feed one whey-fed hog for every ten sheep” (tr. Hooper–Ash)

His conclusion: “In the passage from Cato the Elder, porcus probably refers to pigs as a species, since the word is parallel to oves “sheep” (in the previous line he recommends selling off all the lambs).”

I could not disagree more. First of all, the word oves here means “ewes” specifically (note the “denas”), because Cato is describing raising a pig on the extra whey produced from their milk. When cheese is made from sheep milk — using the curds — a substantial portion of the watery part of the milk (the whey) remains. This can be fed to pigs. However, the extra whey from ten ewes, after all the curds have been used for cheese, is not going to support a full-grown pig. Remember that the watery part is not the most nutritious part. Now of course the whey does not have to be the only source of food for the pig. But in order to produce the desired product — porcus serarius, specifically whey-fed pork, a high-quality meat — you are going to have to raise a young animal on the whey, and it will have to be a large part of its diet. And, in fact, even today it is custom in producing this product to make the whey the first food given to piglets after they are weaned from their own mother’s milk. Cato is almost certainly talking about raising piglets here.

This is one of our limitations when dealing with this vocabulary: most of us do not know enough about farming to grasp the subtleties of the language when dealing with these authors.

As for Plautus, Gitner concludes that the references to porci in his plays fall into two categories: 1) cases where porci probably refers to young and 2) cases where there is insufficient context to conclude anything definitive. Gitner only offers one example of the former (where porci is used in parallel with agni), but there are multiple instances when you allow the adjective porcinus as well: in the Captivi, someone is sent out to buy “porcinam et agninam et pullos gallinaceos” — the meat of three young animals, all in a row. The Menaechmi distinguishes between caro suilla and caro porcina. The Rudens contains a joke about a winch (Latin sucula) where the term is understood as a “little sow” and the interlocutor adds that the “little sow” should have some “little piglets” (“cum porculis,” line 1170). This joke plays on the basic presumption that a female sus would naturally be with porci, and a little sus would be with little porci.

In other words, the evidence continues to fall into two categories: 1) it confirms the thesis that porcus means a young pig or 2) it does nothing to disprove it.

Children’s rattles in the shape of porci. (photo by Dan Diffendale)

The examples that stand out as challenging come from Petronius, Juvenal, and later Latin. By the time of Donatus, having looked at the evidence, I would say porcus meant an adult pig. Needless to say, this is not unusual, lexicographically, to find post-Augustan usages shifting. When exactly this transition happened is the next question. There are fourteen uses of porcus in the Cena Trimalchionis, and there I think sus and porcus are used interchangeably. It would be hard to conclude much from this. It may be that the characters are referring to the sus brought out for dinner as a “piglet” or “piggy” because that is cute and colloquial, the way we today might say “here kitty” to a lion. Or it may be because they are supposed to be ignorant of good Latin (a theory which has been proposed for the use of lactem as the accusative of lac in the mouths of the same characters). Or it may be that Romans of Petronius’s day no longer registered any distinction between sus and porcus. (Similarly, some have written to me to tell me that my English use of “pig” is incorrect and that “pig” should never be used of an adult animal, where the correct word is “hog.” This may be historically accurate (?), but that distinction is clearly lost nowadays, where even scientists will call the animal known as Sus scrofa “the domestic pig”).

The Juvenal case (6.159) is rather unique. He is describing Judaea, “where kings observe the sabbath holidays with bare feet, and time-honored clemency grants pardon to old pigs” (obseruant ubi festa mero pede sabbata reges/ et uetus indulget senibus clementia porcis). The example unambiguously refers to old pigs. Whether there is difference between “senex sus” and “senex porcus,” the way there is a difference between “old man” and “old boy” in English (though both refer to adults), I cannot say. It could be that this usage emphasizes the clemency, that the “little piggies” have been allowed to grow old; it may be a colloquialism; it may be poetic license; or again, it may be that the meaning of the whole word had shifted by Juvenal’s day (early 2nd century, three hundred years after Plautus).

What it is not, however, is a convincing reason to keep “young pig” from being the primary meaning of porcus in our textbooks and dictionaries. Gitner defended the TLL for having “young pig” as meaning IA2aβ. I am saying it should be meaning IA1. Indeed, once we see that this is the basic meaning of the word, many more instances, currently consigned to the other parts of the entry, move to their proper place: when Horace writes of a “porcus bimestris,” a two-month old piglet, why would the TLL not say that this belongs in the part of entry where the word refers to young pigs rather than adults? When Columella writes “de educatione porcorum,” it is clearly about young; more analogous in Latin usage to “educatione puerorum” than “hominum.” The same with many other examples. And the fact that standard dictionaries such as Lewis and Short, the Oxford Latin Dictionary, Cassell’s, Forcellini, etc. don’t have this meaning for the word at all, is something which stands in need of correction.


John Byron Kuhner is former president of SALVI, the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies, and editor of In Medias Res.

In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

John Byron Kuhner

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In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

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