It’s Day One of the A-to-Z Challenge so I’ve been looking for a words to look into. Starting at the very beginning seemed like a very good place to start. The start of the dictionary that is, and if you discount the indefinite article, abbreviations and proper nouns the first significant word is aardvark.
Aardvark, unfortunately, was not coined by some lexicography fanatic trying to get his zoological discovery onto the first page of the dictionary. Nor is it a typing mistake that stuck. The word is undoubtedly a foreign loan word. It came from Afrikaans Dutch in the late 18th century and is a compound of aard, ‘earth’, and vark, ‘pig’, since it is a burrowing animal, not because it is actually closely related to the pig. The animal is also colloquially known as the antbear although it’s clearly not a bear either. In fact, the aardvark is the sole descendent of the mammalian order Tubulidentata; all its relatives became extinct in the Pliocene Epoch, between 5.332 million to 2.588 million years ago.
The component parts of aardvark go back much further than the word itself. The Old English equivalent of the Dutch aard was eorþe, meaning ‘ground, soil, dry land’ as well as ‘the material world’, in contrast with heaven or the underworld. Both aard and eorþe can be traced back to their common ancestor *ertho in Proto-Germanic, which can then be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root *er-, a reconstructed language and antecedent of most of the Indian and European languages we have today, which is thought to have existed around 3500 BC.
Similarly, the Old English version of vark was fearh, meaning ‘young pig’. Both descend from Proto-Germanic *farkhaz which in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European *porkos.
Of course, *porkos looks familiar for a reason; Latin adopted the PIE word as porcus, ‘pig, tame swine’, which moved into Old French as porc. We then adopted pork to refer specifically to the meat of a pig in the 14th century, thanks to the Norman invasion. Those pesky French invaders who could afford meat used their own French words to describe it, like pork, beef and mutton, leaving cow, swine and sheep for the lowly English farmers.
An aardvark, on the other hand, might not make a particularly appetising dinner. They are thought to be declining in number but there is no definitive count since aardvarks are nocturnal animals which are not often sighted. All the same, their meat supposedly resembles pork and is used by African magicians to make a charm which is said to give the user the ability to walk through walls. In African folklore, the aardvark is revered for its fearless and determined request for food, even when faced with soldier ants.