This week, US President Donald Trump’s policy of separating families seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border, well, separated our hearts. We’ve seen the cruel ironies of etymology on this blog before. The word separate, alas, is no exception.
A so-called caravan has arrived at the US border after trekking thousands of miles across Mexico from Central America. Now numbering in the hundreds, the people, including many women and children, are seeking asylum in the US from violence back home.
Caravan came to prominence earlier in April after Donald Trump tweeted an ominous reference to the group as it made its way to the border. The term has since spread in the media reporting on the migration news.
The asylum seekers have, indeed, come a long way in their efforts to find some safety—and so, too, has the word caravan travelled from afar.
The Trump administration has added a controversial citizenship question to the 2020 US census. Opponents have quickly criticized and sued over the move, arguing it will deter immigrants from responding, not only resulting in an accurate count of the population but also violating the very US constitution.
Let’s survey the origin of census.
From the New York Times (strong language ahead):
President Trump on Thursday balked at an immigration deal that would include protections for people from Haiti and some nations in Africa, demanding to know at a White House meeting why he should accept immigrants from “shithole countries” rather than from places like Norway, according to people with direct knowledge of the conversation.
It’s remarkable, this “shithole” remark—and no, I don’t just mean the racist xenophobia lurking in President Trump’s language, not to mention its utter ignorance of international affairs and an abject dearth of humanitarianism.
On the Strong Language blog, Merriam-Webster’s Kory Stamper explains why newspapers printing shithole, as their editorial policies have been variously averse to do, is such a boon to lexicographers:
So when the word “shithole” shows up above the fold in the news section of a newspaper, that tells me, as a lexicographer, that this word is not just the province of BuzzFeed or Twitter or pulp fiction, but might actually be (shitty, shitty) Wonder Bread.
The “Wonder Bread” here, in Stamper’s apt metaphor, is an earlier reference to a word as “boring and everywhere…remarkable only because it is wholly unremarkable[.]”
The Panama Papers is a big leak pointing to some big names involved in some big money. Fortunately, at least for a little head like mine, some smart folks on the internet have been helping me understand this big news in some simpler terms: the piggy bank.
I’m not going to dive into the shell companies, tax evasion, or corruption associated with the secret offshore industry the Panama Papers is exposing, because, well, I got no further than piggy bank, thanks to the helpful explainers.
Where does this term piggy bank come from? I guess I’ll have to break it open and see what sort of etymological money is inside.
“Piggy bank”: a lexical ledger
A casual web search for the origins of piggy bank will yield various articles repeating a claim that piggy banks were originally made from pygg, a kind of “orange clay.” Through subsequent spelling and vowel changes in Middle English, this pygg evolved into the piggy associated with these “money boxes” today.
As far as the written record of piggy bank goes, here’s what we know. The earliest record of piggy bank is actually the American English pig bank, cited in the Jersey Journal in 1898. Etymologist Barry Popik points us to a particularly illustrative citation in a 1900 issue of The Oregonian: “The latest novelty — The Pig Bank. You have to kill the pig to get the money — 25c each.”
This early example indeed supports the classic concept of the piggy banks: They have to be broken apart to get the money slipped into its one-way slot. Aversion to, or the inconvenience of, this requisite destruction, so it goes, encouraged savings, as well as perhaps deterred theft.
Now, piggy bank as such is evidenced by 1913 in The Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette, according to the OED: “She could see everything quite plainly now; her little room with the pink roses climbing up the wall, her box of toys, — “Teddy was up-side-down, poor Teddy,” — her desk with the piggy bank on top of it.”
The OED does document another sort of pig bank in the mid 19th century, though this one appears to be unrelated. This pig bank refers to a small bank supplied with money by a larger one. (Perhaps the operant metaphor is that the small bank is fattened up like a pig?)
Rolling in the mud?
As far as the record is concerned, the term piggy bank is a relatively recent phenomenon, but the savings device is much older. Archaeologists have discovered money boxes used in ancient Rome, in medieval China, and even in 14th-century Indonesia, whose money boxes even took the form of pigs.
But why should these coin containers be associated with pigs in the first place?
We don’t have evidence of the kind of orange pygg many internet articles cite, but we do have record of pig referring to various clay vessels. In Scottish and northern dialects of English, a pig has named an earthenware crockery (e.g., pitchers, jars) since the 15th century. And piggy as an adjective and noun for “earthenware” have been found in Scots in the 20th century.
For the origin of this pig, the OED ultimately admits its ignorance, but it does make some interesting suggestions. Perhaps it is related to piggin, a “wooden pail,” though earthen or metallic in some regions. Or perhaps it is connected to prig, a “small metal pitcher.”
The OED also cites an analog in the Scottish pirlie pig, which the dictionary attests by 1799. Here, the pirlie refers to “poking” a coin out of the pig, a kind of “clay pot.”
And, as a Middle English dictionary suggests, the earliest known reference to this pig as a “pygg of wine,” was so named because the container was made from pig skin. (Despite appearances, this pygg is not the “orange clay” your cursory Google queries will yield.)
Etymology must often heed Occam’s razor. Piggy might just be a transferred sense of pig, as in, yes, the animal. Smallish, round vessels made from flesh-colored clay? Sure, they sort of look like little oinkers. (As for the actual etymology of pig, see my piece over at Oxford Dictionaries on the curiously obscure origins of some common animal names.)
So, let’s size things up: We have evidence of earthenware pigs in Middle English by the 1450s, Scottish pirlie pigs by the 1800s and piggies by 1950s, and American English pig bank and piggy bank by the 1900s. Record-wise, this is a pigsty.
As Michael Quinion suggest in his thoughtful discussion, we might well turn our attention away from lexical pigs to cultural ones for the origins of piggy bank. We find money boxes in various forms throughout early Europe, including in the form of pigs. Due to the food they provide and the farrow they birth, pigs became symbols of wealth, fertility, and luck, particularly in Germanic cultures. Immigrants, apparently, must have brought Sparschwein (a “saving pig”), for instance, to United States, where speakers applied a more literal label to this hog hoarder.
For as much as piggy banks may help someone like me understand the situation, the Panama Papers is evoking a different kind of pig symbolism: the greedy, capitalist kind.
m ∫ r ∫
Last post, we looked into the origins of border, which turned up many planks and ships. But what of immigration?
The homeland of immigration is the Latin verb, migrare, “to move” or “change residence.” Immigrate features the prefix im-, a form of in-, “into,” assimilated to the root’s m to ease pronunciation. Immigrate‘s counterpart, emigrate, uses e-, “out of,” to make its meaning.
The Latin migrare has a yet more distant motherland in that rich earth of Proto-Indo-European’s *mei-. According the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, this *mei– meant “to change, go, move; with derivatives referring to the exchange of goods and services within a society as regulated by custom or law.” In the case of immigration, *mei– took some extra bags with it to become, essentially, *meigw-.
We’ve actually encountered *mei before on the Mashed Radish in the surprising case of mad. As the American Heritage Dictionary will have you recall, Old English is hypothesized to have had *gemædan, “to make insane or foolish,” from the Germanic *ga-maid-az, “changed (for the worse)” or “abnormal.” This is then traced back to *mei-.
In many ways, English is an immigrant language. It both welcomes other languages and, to put it mildly, welcomes itself in others.
At its core, English is a Germanic language, but over half of its vocabulary is from Latin, much of it directly from the French, particularly during the Middle English period, which Deputy Chief Editor of the OED studies in his Borrowed Words. But everything from Arabic to Celtic to Navajo to Spanish to Yiddish have made their great presences known on our magnificent bastard tongue, as linguist John McWhorter delightfully calls it in his work of the same name.
But we can’t really speak about English as much as we should speak about World English. According to Ethnologue, over 330 million people speak English as their first language, while over 500 million speak it as a second language, adapting it in wondrous and beautiful ways to fit their cultural and conceptual needs. There isn’t English: there are Englishes.
Immigration may be an apt metaphor for English, but so it is for language itself. Yes, the story of English is a wildly successful one, but that is due to historical power and patterns, not inherent superiority. (Ask French and Latin about their ultimate fortunes as seemingly irrevocable global languages.) English is adapted and adaptable not because of its Englishness, but because of its language-ness. Language is adapted and adaptable because human purposes are. Because the human experience is a messy one, a busy one, a complex one, a changing one, whether battling the elements on an ancient savannah or battling traffic on the commute to work. We are in constant contact with others, with environments, with concepts, and our language acts as mediator, as migrator, if you will. And thus, in so many ways, the aptest metaphor is the root of immigration–*mei-, change, particularly in that sense of exchange.