• porcelain •
por-sê-lin • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: Fine, translucent, white china or the clay it is made from.
Notes: This word has spawned many adjectives: porcelainic, porcellanic, porcelainous, porcellanous, and porcellaneous. But we tend just to use the noun attributively: a porcelain cup. Something that has been changed to a porcelain-like substance is said to be porcellanized.
In Play: The word basically refers to a fine china: "My poached asparagus and ricotta paled on the large white porcelain plate it arrived on." Metaphorically, it may refer to anything pale and lustrous: "My daughter's porcelain hands need to be protected from household chores."
Word History: Porcelain was borrowed from the French word which originally referred to a cowry shell, porcelaine. Presumably, it received this name because the lustrous smoothness of the chinaware recalls the shell's texture. The French word was borrowed from Italian porcellana, formed from porcella "little pig", the diminutive of porca "sow, female pig". To Italians, the curve of the cowry shell recalls the mottled back of a fat little pig, with a nubbin of snout at one end. Porca descended from Latin porcus "pig", inherited by French as porque, and borrowed by English as pork. We also see it in porcine, porpoise, and porcupine. Among the Germanic languages, where the PIE [p] changed to an [f] sound, Dutch converted the word for "pig" to vark, a word we see in aardvark "earth-pig". In Old English the same root became fearh, still with us today as farrow, a litter of piglets.
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