Dear Straight Dope: What is the history of the piggy bank? Why isn’t it a doggy bank or cat bank? Danny Baylus
Hang on, ’cause this is a long, bumpy ride through WordLand. We are about to see the unbroken chain from pigs to lumber.
First thing we gotta cover is the Great Vowel Shift, which occurred in English back betweeen Chaucer and Shakespeare, when sounds began moving forward in the mouth. “Meat” used to be pronounced more like “mate.” Make the sounds, and you’ll see how most older pronunciations were formed further back in the mouth. Go way, way, back, “y” was the Greek “u”, and pronounced as such. Clytemnestra was originally said “Klootahmnayster”, but the sound evolved over time, passing through “uh” to short “i” to the two variants of long “i”: the “ee” sound we see in “slowly,” and the “eye” sound we see in “electrolyte.”
Going way, way back, there was a word in English, “pygg,” which referred to a certain clay. It was used for making all kinds of household objects, including things for storing money. At the time the barbaric Saxons learned to write, “pygg” was probably pronounced to rhyme with “pug,” but as the pronunciation of “y” changed, “pygg” came to be pronounced about like “pig,” and the banks were shaped like pigs as a joke, or because of confusion of the meaning.
According to Charles Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, people were saving money in kitchen pots and jars made of pygg, called “pygg jars”… and by the 18th Century, pygg jar had become pig bank, potters simply casting the bank in the shape of its common, everyday name.
By the way, clay bottles filled with hot water are still used as bed-warmers in parts of Britain, and are called “pigs” or “china pigs”; Eric Bogle did a song about them. They, too, are often shaped like pigs as a visual pun.
Pygg survived in its original pronunciation as “pug,” a clay slip; and “pug mill,” a mixing machine used originally for clay. Here, again, the spelling was changed to fit new ideas about spelling.
OK, after that, “bank” must be simple. Not so fast. Bank originally meant “bench”; you can probably see the connection between the words. Money lenders in Northern Italy once did business in open areas, or big open rooms, with each lender working from his own bench or table. If he went “broke,” the piece of furniture was literally broken to signify that he wasn’t in business anymore.
Other lenders did something closer to pawnbrokering; the Lombards, a germanic tribe living in Northern Italy, were famous for lending against collateral, and would have a storeroom full of forfeited goods and goods not yet redeemed. This lead to storage rooms being called “Lombard rooms,” since they looked a little like a pawnshop. Over time, this slurred into “lumber room.” Ahh, yess, lumbering through words about money…
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