Recently, I learnt that the literal meaning of the main written Japanese form for dolphin, "海豚", is "sea" and "pig". The Japanese person mentioning that noted that he didn't know for sure why that was the case. At first I thought it was because dolphin meat was similar to pork, but then I looked further into it.

海豚 is also used in Chinese. Meanwhile, the English word "porpoise", which comes from Medieval Latin via French, is based on a compound of pig and fish. In addition, the Welsh for "porpoise" is based on sea pig and sea sow.

Online Etymology Dictionary mentions that Latin had "porculus marinus", with the theory that its snout looked like that of a pig.

The Wikipedia article Marine mammals as food mentions that in Peru, dolphin meat is referred to as "sea pork".

I came across the fact that the German for guinea pig is "sea pig", but I'm not looking into that.

Why are some sea mammals called "sea pigs", especially in Chinese/Japanese? Failing that, has there been any cases of sea mammals being called "sea pigs", where it is known that the speakers of that language don't eat sea mammal meat?

  • 1
    In Russian Guinea pig also called sea pig. – Anixx Nov 30 '15 at 5:55
  • Scotoplanes are also called sea pigs in English en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotoplanes – Anixx Nov 30 '15 at 5:57
  • in Vietnamese dolphin is called "cá heo", which means "pig fish", maybe because of some Chinese influence – Lưu Vĩnh Phúc Feb 3 '16 at 14:04
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    You also get sea cows. – BladorthinTheGrey Oct 25 '16 at 22:09
  • In Basque language dolphin is "izurde", which probably comes from "itsas urde", "sea pig". – basaundi Sep 21 '17 at 4:33

The "sea pigs" in English is translated from "porci marini" in Latin not just because they have similar snouts as pigs do. They also use it in the same way. When gathering food, they submerge their snouts in the sand. Well, they look like pigs, too (look at the round shape with seemingly redundant mass), and have a similar pink color, too. All nations and cultures must have noticed the similarity.

The terminology is not related to their taste, so it's irrelevant that the Asian speakers didn't eat sea pigs. If they named things according to the taste, they wouldn't call them "sea pigs", anyway, because sea pigs actually taste like chicken. In some regions of Japan, they eat dolphins and use their fat instead of pork lard.

  • 'In some regions of Japan, they eat dolphins and use their fat instead of pork lard. ' Reference? – virmaior Nov 29 '15 at 9:23
  • Hi, search for all words "dolphin" e.g. at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marine_mammals_as_food - In some parts of the world, such as Taiji in Japan and the Faroe Islands, dolphins are traditionally considered as food, and are killed in harpoon or drive hunts.[15] Dolphin meat is consumed in a small number of countries world-wide, which include Japan[16] and Peru (where it is referred to as chancho marino, or "sea pork").[17] While Japan may be the best-known and most controversial example, only a very small minority of the population has ever sampled it. etc. – Luboš Motl Nov 29 '15 at 9:34
  • If you specifically want the comment about the dolphin fat used for cooking, I have a reference in Japanese: ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%82%A4%E3%83%AB%E3%82%AB – Luboš Motl Nov 29 '15 at 9:37
  • First off, the sentence in Japanese is completely unsourced "また動物性油脂を天ぷら油として使用する一部の地域では、豚の脂身(ラード)の代わりにイルカの脂肪を使用することもあるようである。 This is in a long list of potential uses. " Second, in my dialectic of English, "some regions of Japan" would not be capable of meaning "a few people in Taiji" ... – virmaior Nov 29 '15 at 10:18
  • It's not a few people. Just in 2007, 1623 dolphins were caught in Wakayama Prefacture. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiji_dolphin_drive_hunt - The weight of one is from 30 kg to 5 tons. Say it's 400 kg, the geometric mean. So we're talking about 600 tons of dolphin meat a year. A few people will have a hard time to eat it. There's too much mercury in it so people better not consume over 1 kg, and if you divide the meat in this way, we're talking about a million people who eat it on a given year. They're a minority but a large enough for the whole nation to know how it tastes. – Luboš Motl Nov 30 '15 at 8:24

It's not just porpoise (porcus + piscis) - the middle English word for dolphin was mereswine, and in fact most marine mammals* in English were named by analogy to familiar land mammals:

Modern word Historic word
manatee, dugong mercow, seacow
dolphin merswine
porpoise seaswine, seapig, seahog
walrus horshwael ("horse whale")
seal seadog

* Also non-mammals like seawolf, seahorse, sea urchin, dogfish, catfish etc

  • Other Germanic languages also still use the cognate of ME mereswine (German Meerschwein, Scandiwegian marsvin, etc.). Somewhat counterintuitively, the other Germanic forms also mean ‘guinea pig’, though probably because they come from ‘across the sea’ and grunt like a pig. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 23 at 10:49

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