Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Little Pigs on the Beach

Anyone who’s played an incarnation of the Nintendo video game Animal Crossing should be familiar with porcelettas, the most worthless seashell that can be collected. While any number of shell varieties can be found on the beach and some of them — pearl oysters, scallops — can be sold for a bit of cash, porcelettas are the pennies of the game’s seashell hierarchy. You get next to nothing for selling them. You’re practically better off throwing them away than bothering to carry them around.

image courtesy of 1p start

Aside from being worthless, the porceletta stands out as being the one shell I’d never heard of. The word isn’t even all that well documented online. In fact, most Google hits for the term turn up something related to Animal Crossing. And the number one hit for porcelettas is a post I put up on this very blog a while back.

Here’s why: Porceletta is a rarely used term for the thing most of us know as a cowry shell. And it’s odd that the Animal Crossing porceletta would be so little-valued, because cowry shells have been used as currency in seaside cultures, sometimes fairly recently. A variant of porceletta, porcelana, is also the origin of the term porcelain, as both the shell and the ceramic material have a similar luster that people noted when they first encountered porcelain. Porceletta, by the way, means “little sow” and could come from the Latin term porcula meaning the same, the connection presumably being that the rounded shell looks a bit like a little pig. An article on the website Idiocentrism, however, claims a connection between porcelettas and the vagina, mostly because the underside of the shell looks like a vulva. I’m not sure I get the linguistic connection between sows and female sexuality, but then again, I wasn’t raised on a farm.

the purportedly pornographic porceletta

Vaginas or no vaginas, this would mark the second time that Animal Crossing taught me something surprising about the animal kingdom.

EDIT: After writing this, I recalled Katherine Barber’s Six Words You Never New Had Something to Do With Pigs and that porcelain was, in fact, one of those six words referenced in the title. She notes that some say the cowry looks specifically like a pig vulva. “I don’t know what sort of mind can think of that when looking at a seashell, but that’s the story,” Barber writes.

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