This Word Sails to Many 'Ports' of Call

By Rob Kyff

June 19, 2019 3 min read

Like a wandering sailor, the Latin root "porto" has a girl in every ... well, port. "Porto" means "carry," and this roamin' Roman root has sailed into scores of English words, serving us both the steak ("porterhouse") and the sizzle ("sports").

The Latin verb "portare" (to carry) toted many obvious derivatives into English: "portable," "transport," "export," "porter" (a person who carries something), "portfolio" (a case for carrying papers), and "portage" (lugging boats overland), but it also smuggled in less apparent descendants as well:

— Portly: Originally, "portly" meant "carrying oneself with dignity, stateliness," and referred most often to noblemen. But perhaps because well-fed aristocrats tended to be overweight, "portly" acquired its current meaning of "stout, corpulent."

— Sports: Because enjoyable and playful activities "carry" us away from our humdrum pursuits, these diversions were first called "disports," from "dis-" (away) and "portare" (carry). Soon "disports" was shortened to "sports."

— Support: Derived from "sub-" (beneath) and "port" (carry), "support" literally means "to carry from beneath, sustain." This sense of carrying also survives in "purport" (to convey the meaning of) and "report" (to bring back information).

But whence "porterhouse steak"?

During the 1700s, London brewers started producing a hearty, dark beer. Strong and inexpensive, it proved so popular with the city's hardworking porters that it became known as "porter's ale," later shortened to "porter." (Today, this would be like calling a type of beer "sports fan.") Soon pubs and restaurants in Britain and the U.S. became known as "porterhouses."

Trigger Alert for Vegetarians!

Some linguistic historians believe that because one such porterhouse, Morrison's on Manhattan's Pearl Street, began serving large, T-bone chops around 1814, these cuts became known as "porterhouse steaks."

But others disagree, attributing the term to — take your pick — a Cambridge, Massachusetts, hotel and restaurant owned by Zachariah B. Porter; a hotel called "The Porter House" in Flowery Branch, Georgia; or a porterhouse in Sandusky, Ohio, where Charles Dickens reportedly enjoyed the steak so much that, while visiting a hotel in Buffalo, he asked for "a steak like you get at the porterhouse in Sandusky."

Or perhaps Dickens echoed the plea of his character Oliver Twist: "Please, sir, may I have more porterhouse?"

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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