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Question #89563 posted on 04/29/2017 10:50 p.m.
Q:

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.

Merry-go-Lamb

A:

Dear Mary-Gogh-Lam,

"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! 

-Mico

*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.