Tracking lexical and semantic change in OE and ME

(with thanks to former student ‘A.D.’ and her fine project on pig and pork)


Find a problem and some data:


[One good problem that covers many of the projects you might do:


What are the PDE near-synonyms for a particular concept, and how is the structure of the PDE semantic field clarified by a historical explanation?]


“[T]he animal in the field or on the hoof retained its Anglo-Saxon name, but when slaughtered for the overlord’s table it was transmogrified into Norman” (Hughes)

-examples include pig and pork


1. Does surviving/codified written evidence help us understand how this process happened, and how long it took?

2. And is this statement really accurate?


Start with a thesaurus & the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)




-contains words from ME onwards

          -OE words if they survived into ME

-based on a corpus of quotations

-modern headwords




-hard copy at any reputable on-campus library (2nd ed. 1989 20 volumes)

-online (3rd ed., frequently updated!)

          -on campus, at

-from anywhere, via U of T library homepage: use your library card and student ## as password)


Find as many words in the PDE semantic field as possible

·       thesaurus

·       OED


-looking up pig will remind you of swine, sow, boar, hog

-and should make you think about a piglet

-looking up pork will give you its Latin etymon, porcus ‘pig, swine’

          -so, pork meant ‘pig’ at one point

-looking up swine will give you the Latin genus Sus and family Suidae

-looking up hog will give you barrow

-looking up pork might make you think about bacon


Use other appropriate resources to learn more about the words as they’re now used


-remember that when you go to the Royal Winter Fair, the section with pigs in it has a sign that says SWINE

-ask your friends the pig farmers about technical use of the term!

–my friend Veronica says that pig and swine and hog are interchangeable for her but that she’s noticed that mostly farmers use swine


Make a list of things that are news to you, e.g.


-if you read the OED entries, you’ll discover that

          -boars haven’t been castrated but barrows have

                   -but is this relevant to the pig/pork problem?

          -pig has meant ‘young pig’ for a very long time

                   -piglet is really recent!

-pork and pig were interchangeable for a while

-flesh of swine used as food: pork, pig (boar)

-the animal itself: pork and pig (and swine)

-pork comes from the Latin porcus which meant ‘pig’, so it’s not surprising that it meant ‘pig’ earlier



PIG 3. The animal or its flesh as an article of food.
Usually referring to a young or sucking pig; otherwise only humorous, the regular name for the meat being pork, dial. also pig-meat; cf. also bacon, ham, griskin, etc.
c1430 Two Cookery-bks. 40 Broche {th}in Pygge; {th}en farce hym, & sewe {th}e hole, & lat hym roste.

1477 NORTON Ord. Alch. vii. in Ashm. Theat. Chem. Brit. (1652) 103 Heate wherewith Pigg or Goose is Scalded.

1549 COVERDALE, etc. Erasm. Par. Tit. 28 They feare to be contaminate yf they eate eyther porke or pigge.

1590 SHAKES. Com. Err. II. i. 66 The Pigge quoth I, is burn'd. 1684 BUNYAN Pilgr. II. Introd. 161 Some start at Pigg, slight Chicken, love not Fowl.

1822 LAMB Elia Ser. I., A Dissertation upon Roast Pig.


PORK   {dag}1.    a. A swine, a hog, a pig. Sometimes distinguished from a pig or young swine. Obs. or Hist.
?a1400 Morte Arth. 3122 Poveralle and pastorelles passede one aftyre, With porkes to pasture at the price {ygh}ates.

c1400 Destr. Troy 3837 Polidarius was pluccid as a porke fat.

1528 PAYNEL Salerne's Regim. Fj, Porkes of a yere or .ij. olde are better than yonge pygges.

1533 BELLENDEN Livy I. ix. (S.T.S.) I. 55 He slew {th}e pork with ane hevy stane.

1598 STOW Surv. (1842) 145/1 There were brought to the slaughter-house..34 porks, 3s. 8d. the piece; 91 pigs, 6d. the piece. 1682 J. COLLINS Salt & Fishery 83 Very large like Calves,..and as fat as Porks.

[1799 SOUTHEY Pig 24 Woe to the young posterity of Pork! Their enemy is at hand.

1887 ROGERS Agric. & Prices V. 343 Hogs and porks, the word appearing to be used

indifferently, are occasionally found.] 

Using the definitions and dates in the OED, make a rough chart of


-the different/relevant concepts that these words could cover

-pigs generally, food

-the subdivisions of the time period




pig generally

young pig

swine reared for slaughter

flesh of swine used as food

early OE


*OE picga?



later OE


*OE picga?



early ME





later ME














US hog and hominy



swine  [‘lit., dial., zool.’]






Then start filling in the gaps in the data: Old English


Go to the Thesaurus of Old English (on short-term loan / online) and see if there were any other OE words in that semantic field


-what you’re really looking for are words that denoted ‘pork’ in OE

-and Latin words that were glossed by OE words

-and words in the semantic field that you didn’t find in the OED

->add OE fearh


Go to a dictionary of Old English and look up the OE word(s)



-short: Clark-Hall (online; Robarts short-term loan)

          fearh (æ, e) m. gs. féares little pig, hog ... [‘farrow’]


-longer: Bosworth-Toller 1898 (online; ref sections)


-[beginning of the alphabet: Toronto Dictionary of Old English

          -supposedly via U of T library homepage

-on microfiche]



See if you can get more information than the OED gives you


Bosworth-Toller has quotations that are translated


fearh, ... A little pig, a FARROW, litter; porcellus: -- Fearh porcellus Wrt. Voc. 78, 40. Fearas suilli vel porcelli vel nefrendes, Ælfc. Gl. 20; Som. 59, 35; Wrt. Voc. 22, 76.


You can try to decode the ‘short titles’ from the Explanation of References at the beginning: to me, they look mostly like OE ‘glosses’ of Latin rather than extended prose.

è if a word mostly occurs in glosses, does that mean that

o      -it wasn’t used much in everyday OE?

o      it wasn’t written about much in the kinds of texts that were produced in/have survived in OE?


          Nothing under picga or pigga


Tons of citations for swín –Latin porcus or sus – no subdefinitions about their flesh.


Then there’s the Middle English Dictionary – pretty recently completed!



-in the reference sections of reputable university libraries (Robarts PE ...)

-online: from the library homepage, select 'e-resources' and type in 'Middle English Compendium'



-infer the ME headword and look it up: pigge, pork(e, swín(e


Any more info? Nothing earthshattering...


Pig could mean ‘young pig’ (a1250-) and ‘pig regardless of age or sex’ (1322-) and ‘a pig as food’ (1355-)


Pork could mean ‘flesh’ (c1300), ‘a swine, hog’ (a1425), ‘a hog carcass’ (a1425)


Swine could mean ‘domestic pig’ but also ‘a domestic or wild pig or part of a pig used as food’ (a1225)


But the MED gives more quotations to confirm OED patterns:


Pig and pork were overlapping with each other in late ME and early ModE.


Less surprising: pig ‘animal or its flesh as an article of food’. In this sense it usually seems to refer to a ‘young or sucking pig’ (i.e. its formal integrity is preserved during the cooking process).


More interesting: pork did not lose the meaning of ‘animal on the hoof’ for quite some time.


Next question: what did it mean when it came into English?

OED etymology: “a. F. porc = Pr. porc, It porco, Sp. puerco:-L. porc-us swine, hog.]


Things to think about


-historical dictionaries of French (Robarts reference section)

(I haven’t done this here)


-Anglo-Norman dictionary (in various libraries: at Robarts, it’s in the stacks)


porc, por, por(c)k; porke (pl. poirs Dial Greg 88rb) s.

 pig, swine: ... vaches, berbis, et porkes Anon Chr. 138.15;

boar: En la forest un grant sengler troverent. Lesserunt i les chiens, sur le p. les huerent Rom Chev ANTS 4421


Decoding it

-there’s a list of short titles at the beginning (with bibliographic info)

-Anonimalle Chronicle 1333-81

-Le Roman de toute chevalerie


But general conclusion


porc meant ‘pig, swine’ in Anglo-Norman!


And there were lots of other porc words: porcel ‘pig, swine’; porcelet ‘piglet’, the verb porceler ‘to farrow’....

Next stages


Interrogate the dictionary quotations:


When pig means ‘a pig as food’, does it refer to a whole pig or to something unrecognizable in slices?


What sorts of texts does the word occur in?


(1425) Arun. Cook. Recipes Take vell or pyggus or capons or hennus ... and sethe hom wel togedur a longe tyme in watur and wyn.


(a1486/c1429) Menu Banquet Hen. VI  Pigge endored.


Does your ‘English’ word gloss a Latin word that has a definite meaning?


Does the quotation show signs of translators or editors not being sure about what the right word is?


?a1425 Chauliac(1) Leue þai recent fruytez ... crude porc [Ch(2) swynes; L porcinas] flesh, & fish.


Does the quotation show that the writer thinks the word is ‘old’?


1887 ROGERS Agric. & Prices V. 343 Hogs and porks, the word appearing to be used indifferently, are occasionally found.] 


Does your word occur in a suspicious literary context: rhyme or alliteration? (of course, pig begins with /p/ too...)


(?a1400) Morte Art.(1): Poveralle and pastorelles passede one aftyre With porkes to pasture at the price 3ates.


c1400 Destr. Troy Polidarus was pluccid as a porke fat.


Do your quotations show contemporary writers making a distinction between words in your field?


1528 Paynel Salerne’s Regim. Porkes of a yere or .ij. olde are better than yonge pygges.


1598. Stow Surv. There were brought to the slaughter-house ... 34 porks, 3s. 8d. the piece; 91 pigs, 6d. the piece.



Look at useful primary sources – cookbooks




tak Freysshe broþe of Beff, & draw mylke of Almaundys, & þe Piggys þer-in


cowche thi pigge in disshes ... and serve it forth


And finally...


Select and organize some of this data that you’ve collected into an argument that helps to clarify or solve a problem!