Porcus Does Not Mean Pig

Reading Varro and Columella Can Be Surprising

Do our dictionaries actually know the meaning of this basic Latin word?

One of the first Latin words I learned was porcus. My textbook told me it meant “pig.” Latin teachers love this word. It’s second declension (easy), and it’s an animal (fun) — like equus, another old standby. It has both a dime-store English derivative (pork) and a ten-dollar one (porcine). It even makes for a great lesson on funny Roman names — Marcus Porcius Cato means something like “Mark Piggy the Sharper.” The word has been in constant handling for centuries. And yet it doesn’t quite mean what all our dictionaries say it means — it doesn’t really mean “pig.”

The Romans called this a Suovetaurilia, not a Porcovetaurilia, for a reason. But what was the reason?

It means “piglet.” Now of course, that’s pretty close to “pig.” It’s about as close as “boy” is to “man,” or “lamb” is to “sheep.” But confusing “boy” and “man” would make nonsense of a phrase like puer viri pater est (“the man is father of the man?”). So occasionally the distinctions between similar words are needed for comprehension. And don’t philologists, who have been at work on Latin for quite a long time, specifically take an interest in the precise meanings of words? How had this escaped their notice? Moreover, not knowing that porcus means piglet makes it much harder to read Roman writings on farming. I know — because that’s how I learned that my textbooks and dictionaries had misled me.


The background of this story is that I spent seven years living in a cabin in the Catskill mountains without running water or electricity. I grew or gathered a substantial amount of my own food. I took a strong interest in farming and the natural world. I also had time to read. I read Varro and Cato and Columella, the principal Roman writers about agriculture. (I wrote about some of my disappointments with Cato for Eidolon). The first time I encountered the word porcus in the wild (so to speak), I knew something was wrong. It took about three or four more occurrences of the word for me to figure out that it meant “piglet.” For me the problem arose in book 1 of Varro’s De Re Rustica, when the author mentions that it’s good to have a compluvium available for cattle to drink at when they come back in from pasture. Then he says, “nec minus e pabulo cum redierunt anseres, sues, porci.” “Similarly geese, sues, and porci, when they come from their feeding.” What can sues be if not pigs? And what are porci then? Varro appeared to have some distinction in mind.

There is only one porcus in this picture.

The clue was to be found in Varro’s first use of the word porcus in the next book:

Fere ad quattuor menses a mamma non diiunguntur agni, haedi tres, porci duo.
“For the most part, lambs are not taken from the nipple [i.e. weaned] until four months; kids three months, piglets two.” (2.1)

Agnus and haedus both specifically mean young, of sheep and goats. It’s a suggestive parallelism. The next time he uses the word, it’s in the mouth of his friend Scrofa, explaining how his family earned their cognomen (“the sow”):

Avus, cum cohortaretur milites ut caperent arma atque exirent contra, dixit celeriter se illos, ut scrofa porcos, disiecturum — id quod fecit.
“My grandfather, when he was ordering his troops to grab their weapons and sally out against the enemy, said that he was going to scatter them quickly ‘as a sow scatters piglets’ — which he did.” (2.4)

Sows can’t particularly drive away large, mature pigs (as with many mammals, male pigs are larger on average than females). They do, however get their piglets to scatter at the approach of danger. They will also simply barrel through them to get to food. Here is the next occurrence, when Scrofa is talking about buying good stock pigs:

Boni seminis sues animadvertuntur a facie et progenie et regione caeli: a facie, si formosi sunt verris et scrofa; a progenie, si porcos multos pariunt; a regione, si potius ex his locis, ubi nascuntur amplae quam exiles, pararis.
Pigs [note sues, meaning “pigs”] of good stock are considered for their appearance, their fertility, and their provenance; appearance, if they are born of a handsome boar and sow; fertility, if they bear many piglets [porcos]; provenance, if you get them from an area where they grow large rather than small. (2.4)

Bearing many porcos has got to mean bearing many young. I’m not going to go through every use of the word, but this next passage makes the relationship of the words pretty clear:

Sus ad feturam quae sit fecunda, animadvertunt fere ex primo partu, quod non multum in reliquis mutat. In nutricatu, quam porculationem appellant, binis mensibus porcos sinunt cum matribus; secundo, cum iam pasci possunt, secernunt. Porci, qui nati hieme, fiunt [exiles?] propter frigora et quod matres aspernantur propter exiguitatem lactis, quod dentibus sauciantur propterea mammae. Scrofa in sua quaeque hara suos alat oportet porcos, quod alienos non aspernatur et ideo, si conturbati sunt, in fetura fit deterior.
Farmers can basically tell how well a pig will bear from the first litter, because it does not change much in future litters. They let the piglets [porcos] stay for two months with their mothers for nursing, which they call porculation; in the following month, when they can take feed, they are taken away from their mothers. Piglets [porci] which are born in the winter become thin [? the adjective is missing here] because of the cold and because their mothers reject them because they have little milk, because their nipples are wounded by their teeth. Each sow should care for her own piglets [porcos] in her stall, because she does not reject other sows’ piglets, and if they get mixed up, she will not be as good for breeding. (2.4)

These quotations are enough to establish the basic relationships when it comes to pig terminology in Latin. All pigs are sues. A female adult pig is a scrofa. A male adult pig is a verres. Their young are porci. Raising piglets is known as porculatio. Several other problems can get cleared up too: the Romans distinguished between caro suilla/suina and caro porcina: the first refers to eating grown pigs, and the second to eating piglets (“suckling pigs”). The Roman distinction is much like the distinction between beef and veal (from vitulus, a calf). The Romans also distinguished between subulci — swineherds — and porculatores. Porculatores bred and sold piglets. Not in these passages but worth mentioning is the word aper, which means a wild pig.

Let me clear up at least one possible objection. “Fine,” you say; “if porcus means piglet, what does porcellus mean? Lewis and Short define that word as ‘piglet.’” Well, porcellus has a technical meaning too: it’s a very small piglet, and it may even mean a runt. Varro mentions that the pig stalls should have walls that are low enough that a farmer can look in and make sure that none of the runts get crushed by their mother (“ne qui porcellus a matre opprimatur”). Animals do sometimes kill their own runts, and this might be what Varro is referring to; or it just may mean that very small piglets are vulnerable and should be watched.

Porcus or sus? Here it gets tricky, but probably porcus — a very common sacrificial animal.

I’ve given the passages from Varro because it was Varro that taught me the meaning of porcus, but I can confirm that this is the standard usage of the word for the ancient authors. Cato frequently describes piglet-sacrifice, together with the young of other animals (“Ubi porcum inmolabis, agnum vitulumque, sic oportet”). Plautus uses the word in parallel with agnus as well: “sunt domi agni, et porci sacres” (Rudens 4.6.4). Cicero describes the happiness of a farm: “abundat porco, haedo, agno, gallina,” again, with the young animals all in parallel formation. Varro in his De Lingua Latina says that Alba Longa was named for a white pig (sus) which “triginta parit porcos” (“bore thirty piglets”).

I’m not going to rule out some usages of the word to mean an adult pig, any more than I’ll rule out the use of the word boy or girl in English to mean adult males and females. Latin loves diminutives. But one way or another, “piglet” has to be one of the natural meanings of porcus. But you won’t find it in Lewis and Short (“a tame swine, a hog, pig”) and not in Cassell’s either. The Oxford Latin Dictionary, which is normally so precise about word meanings, never mentions “piglet,” being content to leave it at “male pig” and (in the plural) “pigs without differentiation of sex.” I thought it might be only an English problem, but Forcellini’s Lexicon Totius Latinitatis defines it thus: “porcus est sus domesticus, ut aper ferus; χοιρος, συς.” This distinction between domestic and feral swine is a nice effort to explain why we have porcus, sus, and aper, but doesn’t really explain why porcus is consistently used to describe young pigs, nor does it explain why it is used with adjectives like sylvaticus, agrestis, and aprinus — all indicating wildness.

The TLL archives. Somewhere in here is the secret of the sus. And the secret of the porcus.

But I’m definitely not the first to notice this. The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae aims to be the standard dictionary for Classical Latin. Work began in Germany in 1894, but the dictionary is not finished yet; a conservative estimate is that it may be finished by 2050, giving me ample time to scoop them. Entries for the letter P were completed in 2010. After imprecisely (I expected better from Germans!) defining porcus as “animal suillum” (“a swinish animal”), the TLL immediately offers a possible qualification in a parenthetical:

(vocem strictius pertinere ad fetus putat [Emile] Benveniste, Le Vocabulaire des Institutions Indo-europeennes 1, 1969, 27 sqq., nec absurde; haec enim notio maxime elucet, ubi porci cum matre nominantur.)
(Emile Benveniste (Le Vocabularie des Institutions Indo-europeennes, 1.1969, pp. 27ff) thinks the word more strictly applies to young pigs — and not absurdly; this notion is particularly clear when “porci” are mentioned with a mother.)

So if you don’t want to believe me, you can believe the far more famous Emile Benveniste, who had realized by 1969 that porcus refers to the young of pigs. He was right, though the author of this TLL entry will not venture anymore than “putat nec absurde” (“he thinks, and not absurdly”). The TLL entry goes on to note that Petronius (not a lodestar for precision in language) in particular maybe uses the word to mean “pig,” and that, contra Forcellini, porcus is used to describe wild pigs as well as domestic ones. In other words, the TLL has the correct meaning at hand, but being unsure, they consign it to a parenthetical. They cite some doozies of examples, though. An inscription from Lambaesis mentions in sequence “bovem vitulum suem porcum.” This is a textbook analogy: bovem is to vitulum as suem is to porcum. And they supply tons of examples from Columella, whom I haven’t quoted here but whom I also read, talking consistently about scrofae nursing creatures called porcos.

“Porcos multos pariunt sues.” — Varro.

At some point in the development in the language, the meaning of porcus may well have shifted, much the way caballus came to take the place of the word equus (caballus may be ripe for some further exploration to see exactly what the Romans meant by that term too). The Desert Fathers (text from the 6th century) are full of stories of young monks being sent off to “pascere porcos.” Whether that means piglets or pigs I don’t know. Pigs can live fifteen to twenty years, but they fatten quickly and reproduce quickly, so usually pigs are slaughtered within six months of birth. The majority of pigs on a Roman farm would have been young, but when they would cease to become porci is an open question.

Multum egerunt, qui ante nos fuerunt,” says Seneca; Our predecessors accomplished much. “Sed non peregerunt.” But they haven’t finished the job. Our dictionaries are mostly excellent, but there’s probably still more work to be done. And the best way to start is to return to the original sources and keep reading until you find something your dictionary definition can’t quite explain.

[UPDATE: A reader, Jan Odstrcilik, notes that Ludwig von Doderlein’s Handbook of Latin Synonymes (1839; English ed. 1852) gets the meaning of “porcus” correct: “a young pig.” As my article makes clear, it’s not hard to get the meaning correct if you’re reading the right sources. The odd thing is that the OLD, Lewis and Short, TLL, etc. get it wrong. And apparently, from the way this article has been shared in other countries, the problem exists in other languages as well. Though another reader informs me that Latin-Serbian dictionaries have it correct.]


[According to Chinese astrology, 2019 is a Year of the Pig. And as it so happens, we have several articles about pigs coming up. This is the first of them.]


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