Dear 100 Hour Board,
Why do groundhogs have the word "hogs" in their name? I also read that they're sometimes referred to as whistlepigs, which, again, brings up the whole swine thing that apparently this animal has going for it.
"Hog" means something very specific today that it didn't 250+ years ago. This is an example of semantic narrowing, and it happens with words all the time. It happened with "dog", it happened with "meat", it happened with "apple"*, and it apparently happened with hog. But back when people started writing/speaking about "groundhogs" in English, it was still general enough to use.
With the word "hog" specifically, it seems that it was once used as a term to really denote that an animal was a good age for slaughter. (Thanks, Etymonline, for sating much of my curiosity.) Guess what one of the most common mammals the Old English slaughtered was? That's right -- pigs, swine, hogs. Now you're thinking, "Mico, that's dumb, why would the word then ever apply to groundhogs? We don't slaughter them."
True enough! What is a common mammal that grunts a bit, has a funny tiny tail, and does a lot of ground-sniffing? Hogs. Groundhogs are like smaller hogs!** What else is like hogs? Aardvarks! Which similarly means "earth pig" in Afrikaans Dutch. Don't forget the ever adorable Guinea pig, not a pig at all, but similarly shaped.
As much as I love etymology, I want to remind all readers of the etymological fallacy, which more or less states don't take etymology too seriously!
*If you've ever wondered why English is ~so special~ and calls the spiky fruit a "pineapple," it is a similar principle. It once referred to the fruit of a pine tree, a.k.a., what we would now call a "pine cone." Back in those days "apple" was just any fruit from a tree, whereas now it is a very specific fruit. Pineapples as we know them today do resemble in some ways a pine cone, so there the mapping is clearer.
**Consider other biologically incorrect names of animals: panda bear and koala bear, neither of which are bears, but both resemble bears; or, killer whales, not whales at all.