[Originally posted 2 February 2008]
ne of my favorite animals is the aardvark, the amazing African digging machine that eats termites and appears to be unrelated to any other mammal on the face of the earth. When I last looked, anyway, the aardvark stood alone—a single species occupying a single genus in the sole family of its order. Only when we reached its class (it is a mammal after all, and a placental at that) did it have the company of fellows. It is not at all related to other similar-looking animals with much the same lifestyle—the giant anteater, say, or the pangolin—but walks alone among mammals.
The Dutch named it aardvark—aarde being a cognate of our own earth, and varken (I suppose) somehow related to the Indo-European *porko, whence comes Latin porcus and English pork. Or maybe it's some Dutch abomination unrelated to anything elsewhere. I could look it up, I guess, but that would mean getting out of my chair and wandering around the cold house looking for reference works probably buried in the basement.
In any case the Dutch settlers named the beast an earth pig, aardvark in their defective tongue, and English borrowed it from the Dutch. Why they thought the thing was a pig I don’t know. I remember some writer who described the four pigs of Africa, including the aardvark among more conventional suidae, but it never made any sense to me. Tell me, does that thing look like a pig? The earth part I’ve got no quarrel with, seeing that the creature out-burrows strong men with shovels, but it seems to me that you might as well call it an earth-cow, or an earth-goat, as an earth-pig.
Of course we’ve always had problems with pigs in English. When they’re out in the pens, on the hoof as it were, they’re plain old pigs, a good old Anglo-Saxon word of unknown derivation. Or swine, another good Anglo-Saxon word, this one going back through Old English to Proto-Indo-European *suino maybe, or something like that. After we’ve slaughtered them and delivered their roasted flesh to the table, they’ve turned into pork, from the Old French porc, and ultimately back to Latin porcus and Proto-Indo-European *porko. Or maybe they've turned into bacon, another Old French word I'm pretty sure, though I don’t remember what it means. When we call them, however, for some reason we call them in Latin. Sui, sui, we say, and I guess they come.
Earth is a more straightforward proposition. Synonyms include dirt, ground, soil, mud, filth maybe. If we were looking for a decent English approximation of the uncouth aardvark we could do worse than start there. Dirtpig, soilhog, and maybe when we bring it to the table we could call it mudpork. Claybacon. I'm not even going to try to figure out how we'd call one. Terrasui? My Latin sucks.
I started this post a couple of weeks ago, but for some reason it seemed appropriate to publish it today. Happy Groundhog Day!