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Flying Pigs? That's preposterous

ancient picture of a boar with wings

Over 60% of all English words have Greek or Latin roots, and about 10% of Latin vocabulary appears directly in the English language without any alteration by the romance languages (most commonly French). In the specific language of science, over 90% of roots derive from the Latin. 



‘Do bats,’ mused Alice as she fell down the rabbit hole, ‘eat cats or do cats eat bats?’ ‘Is a hysteron proteron,’ others might wonder, ‘preposterous, or is preposterous a hysteron proteron?’ Getting things the right way round is important unless we enter the topsy-turvy world of Wonderland where back to front and upside down - or is that vice versa? – seem normal. If you were to say ‘the teacher gave back the homework I did’ you have a hysteron proteron since you must have done your homework and had it marked before its return.

Hysteron is the Greek for later and proteron means earlier – hence a hysteron proteron is a reversal of order. How is that preposterous? Well, pr(a)e is Latin for ‘before’ and post ‘after’ and praeposterus ‘inverted, in the wrong order’. From there it is a small step in meaning to ‘absurd, contrary to common sense.’ 


Pigasus Redivivus

English ‘boar’ is related to Latin aper (cf. German eber), and Latin porcus (pig) gives us ‘pork’, while Latin sus and Greek hys haven’t left much trace in English. Perhaps ‘sow’ and ‘swine’ may be distant relations of sus: the Late Latin adjective suinus sounds so close, but ‘swill’ is definitely not related to Latin suillus ‘of a pig’. 

Steinbeck was somewhat obsessed with flying pigs, but he may not have known the now obsolete English verb sty, ‘to ascend’ as in Spenser Faerie Queene1.11.25 ‘The beast … thought with his winges to stye above the ground’. This is not the origin of street slang sty in the sky (or pork chopper). 

Unfortunately Steinbeck’s Latin wasn’t always accurate (he could write ad astra per alia porci – to the stars by a pig’s other things). If you google the phrase, you will find many entries with either alia or the correct alas (including a Steinbeck manuscript). Among them the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies is worth a visit for Elaine Steinbeck’s account of her husband’s use of the phrase (earthbound but aspiring) and the drawing (in the style of Raphael!) contributed by an Italian friend. Inevitably he dubbed his creature ‘Pigasus’ which he used to write in Greek letters (alas, missing pig, a sus). But he was probably also not aware that the Greeks had already created a flying pig. On a cup in Munich Euphronios painted a shield device with a boar sporting a fine pair of wings: clearly an example of hyspteron-proteron .*


* This terrible joke (pigwing-earlier - Greek pterón a wing) and much of its feed first appeared in CA News, June 2009.







About the author

Alan Beale

Alan Beale is a member of The Lit & Phil and runs one of our regular Latin classes.

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