Monday, March 16, 2015

From over the sea?

So, a friend came back from Peru and brought me a very cute little toy guinea pig with a hat and bag. We were trying to remember what they're called in Russian, and when we looked it up, it's морская свинка (morskaya svinka), which is literally "little sea pig".

Sea pig? we all asked. The name, says the etymological entry, is borrowed from Polish świnka morska, and the Poles got it from the Germans - Meerschweinchen, which, it said, is literally "морская свинка". Which is true. Why do the Germans call guinea pigs "little sea pigs", is the logical next question.

And here the Germans let us down. According to their Wikipedia entry on Hausmeerschweinchen (little house sea pigs),
Laut Duden kommt die Bezeichnung Meerschweinchen von dem spätmittelhochdeutschen Ausdruck merswin. Dieser bedeutete ursprünglich ‚Delfin‘ und wurde wegen der (als ähnlich empfundenen) Grunzlaute verwendet. Es gibt jedoch viele andere, möglicherweise weniger sprachwissenschaftlich begründete Vermutungen, wie die Bezeichnung Meerschweinchen entstand. Am häufigsten wird der Name dadurch gedeutet, dass die Tiere sehr schweineähnlich aussehen und über das Meer zu uns kamen. Es könnte jedoch auch aus einer Verballhornung des Wortes „Möhrenschweinchen“ entstanden sein. Eine weitere Möglichkeit ist, dass sich die Bezeichnung aus einem ähnlich klingenden Wort entwickelt hat, welches jedoch eine völlig andere Bedeutung hat, ähnlich wie bei der Meerkatze, welche als Affenart weder etwas mit Meer noch mit Katze zu tun hat, deren Name sich aber vom indischen Wort „marcata“ ableitet, was übersetzt „Affe“ bedeutet.


According to the dictionary, the term Meerschweinschen comes from the late Middle High German expression "merswin". This meant originally "dolphin" and was used because the grunts were perceived to be similar. However, there are many other, possibly less linguistically educated guesses, for the name's origin. Most often the name is characterized as that the animals look very similar to pigs and came over the sea to us. However, it could also be a corruption of the word "Möhrenschweinchen (little carrot pigs)". Another possibility is that the name has evolved from a similar-sounding word, Meerkatze, which is the name of a monkey and has nothing to do with "sea cat" but rather comes from the Indian word "marcata" which translated means "monkey".
None of those seem very convincing. Plus, I don't think guinea pigs' grunts sound like dolphins', so that hardly strikes me as more convincing than "little pigs from over the sea", however more "linguistically educated" it might be.

Of course, I never got the "pig" part of "guinea pig" anyway.

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