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What's the difference between 'china' and 'porcelain'?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

That China means "from China" was pretty simple, much more interesting is from what porcelain came out:

Look up porcelain at Dictionary.com 1530s, from M.Fr. porcelaine, from It. porcellana "porcelain" (13c.), lit. "cowrie shell," the chinaware so called from resemblance to the shiny surface of the shells. The shell's name in Italian is from porcella "young sow," fem. of L. porcellus "young pig," dim. of porculus "piglet," dim. of porcus "pig."

So we have a shell (cowrie) that resemble a young sow. Then came this new material from China that resemble the shell material for smoothness and glossy, so they took the Italian name of the shell for the material. Curiously enough now the shell is called Ciprea in Italian, I never heard the word Porcellana in Italian in relation to any shell.

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In French, "porcelaine" (coming from the Italian) is the translation of "china". This French word also refers to that shell: Cypraea. I think that the etymologic path is Latin (middle-age) -> Italian -> French -> English. – Graffito Nov 24 '15 at 23:15

Originally, "china" referred to porcelain-ware that was imported from China. It has evolved to a more general use to refer to somewhat fancy tableware and vases made of porcelain.



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They're pretty much the same: china is a type of porcelain. "China" can also be used to mean household tableware, much the same as "silverware" can refer to any utensils, even those that are not made of the precious metal.

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I don't think china is a type of porcelain; or at least, I can't come up with a type of porcelain that couldn't equally well be called china. – Marthaª Dec 7 '10 at 1:36
@Martha: how about a porcelain crown on your tooth? – Robusto Dec 7 '10 at 1:39
@Robusto: good one! I stand corrected. (Although is that actually a different type of porcelain? If so, what is it called? If there's no other word for it, then this might be an example of usage difference - the two words are synonyms, neither is a type of the other, and which one to use in a given situation is governed by custom, not meaning.) – Marthaª Dec 7 '10 at 1:43
... and what about the porcelain you sit on and... well you probably get my drift. – Chris Dwyer Dec 7 '10 at 4:20
So does "china is a type of porcelain" mean "china refers only to certain uses of porcelain" or something like that? That is, is it right that the difference has nothing to do with the actual material? – ShreevatsaR Dec 7 '10 at 4:26

The word porcelain is often defined as "vitreous china", which suggests that it is a subset of 'china' generally. Vitreous means glassy, and if you break vitreous china, it is glass-like all the way through, it does not have a grain to it. China, generally refers to pottery ware that is not glassy, it has a sandy or finer textured grain when you break it.

Porcelain is therefore impervious to liquids and does not require a glaze, while china is not impervious and must be glazed to be used to serve food.

Toilets can be made from either, but the vitreous variety is more durable.

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