Porcus Does Not Just Mean Piglet Either

The TLL Pigs Up the Gauntlet in Our Pugna Porcorum

The ancient shorthand symbol for porcus (Not. Tir. 103.66) — an ancient emoji?

Celebration is in order whenever Latin lexicography makes the news, so I would like to thank John Kuhner for his brilliant exposé about the word porcus, even if he is disappointed by our treatment of this word in the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae. (The TLL, as John explains, aspires to be the most authoritative reference work on ancient Latin. Since 1900 more than eighteen elephant folios have been published, equivalent to around 81,300 standard-sized pages, covering 70% of the alphabet so far. All of it is written in crisp but not always beautiful Latin. I am happy as a pig in something to be working there.)

From the TLL archive

John rightly points out that porcus — usually translated “pig” — actually means “piglet” in many Latin texts, especially Roman agricultural writers, who really ought to know. I fully agree with him that this is important to the word’s meaning and it is omitted by many Latin dictionaries: among them, Lewis & Short’s Latin Dictionary, the Oxford Latin Dictionary, and Forcellini’s venerable Lexicon totius Latinitatis. (But not all of them. The distinction is mentioned in Stephanus’s original Thesaurus linguae Latinae from 1532 [here in a later reprint] and Scheller’s Ausführliches und möglichst vollständiges lateinisch-deutsches Lexicon [3rd edn.] from 1805. It often happens in the history of lexicography that real insights get forgotten and rediscovered, and errors are unthinkingly handed down.)

At the TLL sometimes we really do catch the wrong pig by the ear — or the wrong cat by the tail — but in this case the criticism is misleading. The TLL takes account of the meaning “piglet” in the primary definition and devotes over twenty lines of text to illustrating this usage with ancient quotations. There is even an appendix addressing the different meanings of porcus when it occurs next to sus “swine” and similar words. Unfortunately, all this is easy to overlook because, well, the TLL requires a lot of patience to consult — crede experto — but it usually rewards the effort. I’ll explain more about how the entry works below.

The bigger question John raises is whether porcus means “piglet” categorically. Should we simply cross out “pig” in our dictionaries and replace it with “piglet”? Here there is a danger of jumping from the frying pan into the fire. We feel burned by our teachers and dictionaries when we discover that porcus does not simply mean “pig” after all, but replacing it with “piglet” is also inaccurate.

Lanius carnem parat… suinam? porcinam? aprinam? suillam?

The trouble is that porcus is also used to mean “pig” without reference to age, as John concedes, and the relationship between these meanings is probably more complicated than just “correct” versus “incorrect” or “early” versus “late.” Even if some of the earliest attestations of porcus refer specifically to piglets, not all of them do. My own impression is that both meanings coexisted for most of the recorded history of Latin, and writers could call on the specific meaning “piglet” in contexts that required it. One way to say this is that porcus has a relaxed, or unmarked, meaning “pig” and a technical, or marked, meaning “piglet.”

Actually, a good parallel for this is the word “pig” itself. As the Oxford English Dictionary documents, it is used both in a generic sense, “I1a. An omnivorous, domesticated even-toed ungulate,” and a more specific sense, “2a. young hog; a piglet” (contrasted with “swine” or “hog”) that runs parallel to it, at least in some dialects, for most of its documented history. Unlike in German, for example, where we keep our Schweinerei distinct from our Ferkelei, to say nothing of Sauerei. Perhaps Dr. Lewis and Prof. Short can be partly forgiven, if they had this dual meaning of “pig” in mind.

But no single formula is likely to work for all authors or all varieties of Latin during the millenium covered by our dictionary, to say nothing of later medieval Latin or neo-Latin (where you can find fun neologisms like porcipascus “eating like a pig” and porcellana “porcelain”). The aim of the TLL is to provide the evidence in the most accurate and impartial way possible, so that the readers can ultimately decide for themselves.

The problem of how to translate porcus here is a deeper one and it goes to the heart of why the TLL continues to be written in Latin, pigheadedly some might say, even though this drastically reduces its accessibility (here is one recent defense of this). The point is to avoid the fallacy of translation — the idea that you can establish a one-to-one correspondence between a single word in Latin and a single word in English or any another language. This misconception tends to be promoted by bilingual dictionaries, even when they do so more accurately than in the case of porcus.

By using Latin to describe Latin, the TLL cannot generally rely on translational substitutes. Instead it has to describe the word’s meaning and usage in a language that is on par with the texts themselves. This of course leads to its own difficulties — how do you say “contrastive focus” or “scalar implicature” in good Ciceronian Latin? — but it helps us to avoid imposing anachronistic distinctions derived from English vocabulary and other modern languages onto ancient sources.

On this point I think John and I would happily agree: the endgame of Latin instruction is to see that porcus does not mean this or that word in English; rather, porcus means porcus. A translational substitute can be a useful crutch as long as it is discarded as soon as possible. That is why I strongly support the kind of living Latin pedagogy promoted by John and the Paideia Institute. It is absolutely vital for the future of Latin! And I hope that the TLL has a small part to play in this, not just as a scholarly reference work, but as a pedagogical tool that teachers and students can actively and sometimes indignantly engage with.

I encourage anyone who is interested in learning more about the TLL to plan a visit to our library in Munich or consider applying for our Latin Lexicography Summer School, which will take place July 22–26, 2019 (deadline March 1!).

A notecard from the TLL Archive: “it is of pigs to grunt”. Annotated by M. H. Hoffmann

(Dis-)gruntled with the TLL?

The entire entry porcus can be perused below (references are to column and line number). It was written by Manfred H. Hoffmann, edited by John Blundell, and published in 2010. The TLL is a collective endeavor, and to date 365 individuals from 20 countries have contributed signed articles.

(Soon all published volumes of the TLL will be available online for free, separately from the subscription-only version that offers extra search functionality run by our publisher De Gruyter.)

The body of every TLL article is structured in a hierarchical tree. The subsection of the porcus entry labeled IA2aβ is explicitly devoted to the meaning “piglet”:


To read the TLL you need to know a few basic conventions: everything written in italics is by us, not an ancient source; ancient sources are abbreviated according to the conventions of the Index; and occurrences of the lemma-word, in this case porcus, are abbreviated with a hyphen.

The subsection is titled vox adhibetur de prole, fetibus “the word is used of offspring, progeny.” These are for the most part nursing pigs, rather than the more mature, weaned adolescents, also called shoats. The list of passages is not exhaustive, but it alludes to other passages that are not explicitly quoted in several ways. First, the section heading contains a cautionary parenthesis: exempla certiora tantum “quite certain examples only.” The author is hedging his bets, as is sometimes necessary, by citing only the passages where this meaning is most evident. I will come back to the reasons for this caution later.

Secondly, the same parenthesis also contains cross-references to other parts of the article where the same meaning is found: namely, to section and to line 14 within the same column.

Lastly, the body of the section twice contains the abbreviation al. in eodem cap., short for alia exempla in eodem capitulo “other examples in the same chapter” (in other words, there are additional passages with the same meaning in Varro rust. 2.4 and Columella 7.9 respectively).

If you follow the cross-references, you will find a second subsection where porcus also refers to piglets. This is IA2bα, which collects passages that refer to the famous portent of the thirty piglets, marking the future site of Alba Longa:


But there is no need to go this far into the article to find the meaning “piglet.” Every article begins with a preliminary section, also known as the Kopf, which contains metalinguistic information. It typically begins with a modern etymology, set off by square brackets from the main text.

This is the very first line of the entry:

“both the form and the meaning of the Indo-European root *pork̑o- meaning “young pig” are preserved not only by porcus but also the proto-Iranian *parta- …”

Lastly, there is the interpretamentum. This follows the preliminary section and precedes the main body. It is typically introduced by fere i(dem) q(uod) “generally the same as…”. Here the TLL tries to give a quick-and-dirty definition of the lemma, covering as many of the occurrences of the word as possible. It is not meant to be an exhaustive account of the word’s meaning, but a handle that gives the reader some basic orientation.

2745.41: interpretamentum
fere i. q. χοῖρος “generally the same as χοῖρος”

Having derided the fallacy of translation, I admit that we have committed the sin here. Worse still, it is into the obscurity of another ancient language! I have a lot of sympathy with the reader who at this point decides that the TLL is a very expensive doorstop.

But we do have a simple excuse: this is not our own, modern translation, but the translation of ancient bilingual speakers of Latin and Greek. Surely they knew better than we do. Some of these ancient translations are included in the preliminary section, headed by subtitle de notione “about the meaning”:

Actually, χοῖρος is a superb fit for porcus because it shows the same semantic ambivalence: sometimes it means “piglet”, sometimes it means “pig”. From the Liddell–Scott–Jones Greek–English Lexicon:

LIddell-Scott-Jones, Greek Lexicon

(John chides the TLL for defining porcus “imprecisely” as animal suillum “a swinish animal”, but this is not the definition at all. Animal suillum is a gloss explaining what is meant by proprie “literally” as a heading for section I. The point of the circumlocution animal is partly to emphasize that this section contains references to real, animate pigs, in contrast to section II where the word is used figuratively, for example to people and body parts.)

After the interpretamentum and the heading of section I, a parenthesis further explains the relationship between the meaning “pig” and “piglet.” Here is a translation of the first part:

(vocem strictius ad fetus pertinere putat Benveniste, Le vocab. des institutions indo-europ. I, 1969, 27 sqq., nec absurde; haec enim notio ibi maxime elucet, ubi porci cum matre nominantur. v. imprimis sub A2aβ. de sensu laxiore, quo significatur totum genus, e. g. iam apud PETRON. apparente, v. Löfstedt, Symb. Osl. 38, 1963, 52 …)
Benveniste in Le vocab. des institutions indo-europ. vol. I, 1969, pp. 27ff. thinks that the word more strictly applies to offspring, not at all absurdly; indeed, this meaning is especially evident when porci are mentioned with a mother. See particularly under A2aβ; concerning the looser usage, which refers to the entire species, already evident for example in Petronius, see Löfstedt, Symb. Osl. 38, 1963, 52 …)

John claims that “the TLL has the correct meaning at hand, but being unsure, they consign it to a parenthetical.” In fact, the meaning “piglet” is included in the interpretamentum, it is explained in the etymology and in a parenthetical remark, and it is illustrated in two different sections. Altogether there are more than twenty lines devoted to the usage “piglet” and over thirty if you count the etymology and parenthetical asides.

Putting one’s piglets in a row

One of the earliest attestations of porcus (Plaut. Merc. 988). A slip from the TLL Archive

At this point, I imagine a reader objecting: but if “piglet” is the original meaning, why doesn’t this usage appear first on the page? The TLL observes strict chronological order in how the sections are arranged and how the passages are arranged in each section. So why is “piglet” confined to a subsection in the second column of the article?

Here is the difficulty. The meaning “piglet” may well be etymologically original (though Michiel de Vaan’s Etymological Dictionary of Latin, published in 2011, one year after porcus, appears to disagree, claming the root means “digger, pig”–without reference to age). But how early in the corpus of surviving Latin is this meaning unambiguously attested?

It often happens that a meaning which must be original or primary is only attested late or not at all in the surviving evidence for Latin. For example, praevaricor must have originally meant something like “move with a straddle” (from varico “straddle”), but in classical Latin it mostly means, to quote the OLD: “(of an advocate) to act in collusion with his opposite number in order to secure a particular outcome to a trial.” There is only a single example in a relatively late text where the putatively original, physical meaning occurs (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 18.179). In cases like this, the TLL is not free to let the etymological claim dictate the order of examples in the article.

Here are some of the earliest surviving attestations of porcus. They come from Plautus, who wrote comedies around 200 BCE, and Cato the Elder’s On Agriculture, written around 150 BCE:

Plautus Mercator 988 habete vobis cum porcis, cum fiscina “have here for yourselves with the porci and with the basket” (tr. de Melo, who comments “the exact meaning of this possibly proverbial phrase is unclear”)
Plautus Menaechmi 288–9 quibus hic pretiis porci veneunt sacres sinceri? “for what price are sacred, unblemished pigs sold here?” (tr. de Melo)
Plautus Rudens 1208 sunt domi agni et porci sacres “we have umblemished lambs and pigs ready” (tr. de Melo)
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)

How many of these passages apply to “piglets” without a reasonable doubt? I think a good argument can be made for one of them: Rudens 1208, where porci is parallel to agni “lambs”. The two other passages from Plautus don’t provide enough context to be sure. It is true that sacrificial pigs tended to be young, and therefore porci sacres at Menaechmi 289 perhaps also refers to young piglets (for the use of pigs in sacrifice see subsection IB1). However, the Iguvine Tables, one of the best sources for archaic Italic religion, also describes the sacrifice of older pregnant sows. I would not bet my life on the age of Plautus’s porci sacres. The third passage from Plautus, Mercator 988, contains a proverbial expression whose meaning is anyone’s guess.

By contrast, 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).

And many later passages also use porcus to refer to the species. Here are a few more convincing cases:

Petronius 47.9 putabam petauristarios intrasse et porcos, sicut in circulis mos est, portenta aliqua facturos “I thought some ropewalkers had come in and that the pigs would perform some wonderful tricks, as they do for crowds in the street” (tr. Heseltine–Warmington; the same pigs are called sues in line 8).
Juvenal 6.160 (speaking about the Jewish avoidance of pork) indulget senibus clementia porcis “the mercy (of the Jews) spares the old pigs” (both meanings are humorously in play here)
Vetus Latina, Matthew 7:6 (Tert. uxor. 2.5.2) nolite … margaritas vestras porcis iactare “do not cast your pearls to swine” (translated from Greek χοίρων; Jerome keeps the same translation of the word in the Vulgate)
Corpus inscriptionum latinarum VIII 4508, 9 (a customs law from Algeria in 202 AD) bovem s(emis), porcum (sestertius), porcellu(m) (dupondius) “cattle: one semis; pig: one sestertius; piglet: one dupondius”

In short, some occurrences some fall clearly into the “piglet” pile, some fall clearly into the “pigs in general” pile, and the vast majority cannot be easily sorted by age at all. The entry begins with the most general meaning of porcus because the editors did not feel like they could sort the earliest occurrences into one or the other pile with reasonable confidence. It may well be that some of these examples really do mean “piglet”, but the heading is formulated cautiously, so that the editor and the reader are not forced to decide. The narrower meaning “piglet” is then directly addressed in a later subsection, where only the most watertight examples are given.

The entry also tackles head-on the juxtaposition of porcus with sus/scrofa and a range of similar words: porca, porcellus, and aper. Sometimes porcus appears as a synonym of these words, sometimes in contrast:

2746.26: appendix on synonyms and juxtapositions

The fact that porcus is used as a synonym for some words sometimes and contrastively with those same words at other times is a thrill for the lexicographer, and should give anyone pause before declaring that porcus means any one thing alone.

As always the goal of the TLL is to present the evidence in the most accurate and balanced way possible, and no arrangement is likely to please everyone. This gives readers a greater share of freedom as well as responsibility — freedom to evaluate the evidence differently, to sort more passages into the “piglet” category and argue that this semantic category deserves greater weight, as well as responsibility to read the article carefully and to try to imagine what considerations and objections determined the groupings that we eventually settled on. Readers are free — no, actively encouraged — to jump to their own conclusions. That is why we document almost every surviving word occurrence. But pigs should think twice before flying.

There is much, much more to the word porcus, and I encourage you to explore the full TLL entry below. For example, you’ve heard about the Trojan Horse, but what about the Trojan Pig (2747.15–17)? How was pig manure used in ancient medicine (2747.20)? What kind of people were called pigs (2747.50–62)? How was it used as a sexual innuendo (2747.62–65)? What words are typically confused with porcus by ancient and medieval scribes (2745.36–40)? There is even a subsection devoted to ancient laws about pigs and a military formation known as the caput porci “pig’s head” — if you can snuffle it out.

caput porci

TLL entry porcus: vol. X.1 2744.72–2748.6

Adam Gitner, a former assistant professor of Classical Studies at Indiana University, is a research fellow at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities, working on the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae.

[This article is a response to John Byron Kuhner’s “Porcus Does Not Mean Pig” article, found below. John intends to respond shortly.]