Animal expressions with Adam: Pig Idioms in English

by | May 15, 2023 | Cool & Fun, Idioms & Expressions, Vocabulary

One farmyard regular, the pig, has often come in for unwarranted criticism though it’s super clean and super sociable. It keeps its waste far from where it lives or feeding area and is much more tolerant of colder temperatures than heat. It also displays an elaborate maternal and communicative nature. For all this, it is often brought into our language as ripe for comparison and imagery. So, without more ado, here are a few examples of pig idioms that will be certain to tickle your interest.

Pig idioms: Guinea pigs and whole hogs

We are all doubtless familiar with the phrase go the whole hog, said of someone performing something with full commitment. Less well-known is its origin from 1830s America from a poem by William Cowper which suggests that, while sampling each part of a hog to find which part wasn’t able to be eaten, the whole hog is eaten. We know that a guinea pig is the subject of research or testing but not perhaps that it refers neither to a pig nor to Guinea. It’s in fact a South American rodent used for medical experiments in the 19th century and first referred to a human being experimented upon by George Bernard Shaw. As we all know that pigs can’t fly, the expression pigs might fly, is supposedly in use since the 1600s. It’s typically used sarcastically to mock someone’s credulity. Another call to common sense is pig in a poke, referring to something bought without having first been assessed. It derives from ‘poke’ meaning a sack, from which we get the word pocket, and customers at markets were advised to check the bag first.


Pig-headed, pig’s ear and pig’s eye

Physical attributes of the pig are also idiomatically common. In a pig’s eye, a chiefly North American phrase expresses scornful disbelief at a statement. Piggy-back refers to riding on somebody’s shoulders and derives from the 16th century ‘pick pack’ which meant the carrying of something on the back or shoulders. ‘Pick’ was actually a version of pitch hence the sense of a load that was pitched on to a person’s back for carrying. And then there’s pig-headed: coined in the 1600s and meaning very stubborn or obstinate. One theory for pigs being thought stubborn is that the more intelligent an animal is, the more likely it is to be called stubborn, another being that pigs often won’t move or relocate where people want. ‘Pig-headed’ also implies stupidity and so is insulting. Equally abusive is male chauvinist pig originating with the Women’s Lib movement and said of any man who is aggressive and domineering towards women. Here ‘pig’ implies a male greed and insensitivity.

Casual modern boardroom slang include pig in a python used for a surge in a statistic measured over time and lipstick on a pig said of an attempt to put a favourite spin on a negative situation. From the military world comes pig and roast which is rhyming slang for toast and a cynical reference to the bog-standard level of menu of the average mess for the ‘other ranks’. Other kinds of mess arise with to make a pig’s ear of means to make a mess or muddle of something. It comes from the Middle Ages when supposedly the only part of a pig that couldn’t be eaten or used in any way was the ear; therefore anything unusable by a craftsman was considered a ‘pig’s ear’; it probably developed, with humorous reference, to the phrase you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear meaning you can’t turn something ugly or inferior into something attractive or of value. This was coined in 1579 and is similar to the proverb ‘you can’t make a horn out of a pig’s ear’.

Indeed to have the right sow by the ear meant to have the correct understanding of a situation. It’s one of the other more successful responses to the vicissitudes of life that include on the pig’s back meaning living a life of ease and luxury or to be in a very fortunate situation and bring (or drive) your pigs to market meaning to succeed in realising your potential

A children’s world is depicted in both pig (or piggy) in the middle referring to a person placed in an awkward position between two others and deriving from the name of a game in which two people attempt to throw a ball to each other with a third person in the middle trying to catch it. As for piggy bank meaning a money box, this derives from 1450 in Scotland and northern England where ‘pig’ or ‘pygg’ meant earthenware pots, pitchers, jars and crockery. Potters in 19th century England then began selling pig-shaped vessels to put money in.

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Casting pearls before pigs

cast pearls before swine

The apparent heaviness of pigs is the source of two well-known Biblical idioms. There’s cast pearls before swine meaning to give or show valuable things to people who don’t appreciate them and deriving from the extract “neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet and turn again”. And there’s the Gadarine swine which refers to the act of stampeding with a herd to destruction. It comes from when Jesus told the people how the evil spirit that had been cast out entered the Gadarine swine, causing them to hurl themselves in a fit of madness over the edge of a cliff to their destruction.

Similes also inevitably apply to pigs with sweat like a pig meaning to sweat profusely; bleed like a stuck pig meaning to bleed copiously and squeal (or yell) like a stuck pig meaning to squeal (or yell) loudly and shrilly. 

As for direct observations there’s to make a pig of yourself meaning to overeat. Indeed food is again the theme with pig months, a 19th century phrase for those months in the year which have an ‘r’ in their name: that is, all except the summer months of May, June, July or August, when it was traditionally considered unwise to eat pork (or shellfish). Careful when you ‘pig out’!

Adam Jacot de Boinod

Adam Jacot de Boinod worked for Stephen Fry on the first series of QI, the BBC programme. Adam is the author of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World, published by Penguin Books.

Be sure to check the other articles of Adam’s Animal Series on our blog: Cats, Dogs, Horses…and more to come!

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