Porcelain was introduced to Europe by Marco Polo, and ever since has been the first choice for the best crockery. When you sip your tea and eat your cucumber sandwiches at Buckingham Palace, or in the Rose Garden of the White House, you’d expect only the best porcelain to be used. It’s a posh word for the finest china, and hardly the sort that you’d expect to have rather rude origins.
As several etymology and popular websites will tell you, the English word porcelain comes rather unimaginatively from the French porcelaine, which is also given to the cowrie shell. Marco Polo himself probably used the Italian word porcellana, with the same origin in the shell. It is proposed that early porcelain resembled cowrie shells in colour and finish, and that some of the early porcelain products were used by painters to put their colours in, something for which they had used cowrie shells.
The chain of origins there undergoes something of a hiatus. Look porcella up in a Latin dictionary, and you’ll find that it is a diminutive of porcula, and means a small sow.
Getting from a small sow to cowrie shells has been a stretch of the imagination, and most sites claim that the shells gained their name from the appearance of a small sow’s genitals. The Oxford English Dictionary is more honest, and simply states that “the ulterior etymology of It. porca, porcella is unsettled”.
The most likely link has nothing to do with pigs, as such, and everything to do with nursery slang. In his Rerum rusticarum (Agricultural Topics), the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BCE) let slip that the Latin word porcus was commonly used by women, mainly in and around the nursery, as a slang term to refer to the pudenda of girls. Adams considers that the derivative porcellana was derived from that, and applied to shells such as the cowrie which have the appearance of a porcus.
An alternative name for the shells, given by Pliny, was veneria, which refers of course to the goddess Venus and other closely-related associations.
I can’t see artists and others who used cowrie shells making such an obscure reference to small sows, but using a slang term perhaps best translated as pussy seems far more credible.
Whatever you do, though, the next time that you sip tea daintily from a porcelain cup, and eat a cucumber sandwich from a porcelain plate, try not to remember the most probable origin of the word porcelain.
Adams, JN (1982) The Latin Sexual Vocabulary, Johns Hopkins UP. ISBN 978 0 8018 4106 2.