The oink on the page: pig idioms and expressions
27 March is Dick King-Smith’s birthday and, although his name might not immediately be ringing bells in your head, there’s a strong possibility that you’ve come across one of his creations. Of the dozens of children’s books he wrote before his death in 2011, perhaps the most famous is The Sheep-Pig (1983), published in the US as Babe the Gallant Pig, and released as a 1995 film called simply Babe.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Babe (the pig in question) trains as a sheepdog (sorry – sheep-pig), and a heart-warming story ensues. It’s like a much cheerier, less allegorical, version of Animal Farm. What better way to celebrate the most gallant pig in all of children’s literature (knocking Wilbur from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web into second place) than doing what we recently did for horses, and seeing how pigs have fared in idioms and phrases across various languages.
Before I get onto the more curious examples, it’s worth noting that most of the similes regarding pigs are derogatory. If you accuse someone of eating like a pig, sweating like a pig, or being as happy as a pig in muck, then not only are you playing fast and loose with the norms of delicate conversation, but also you are neglecting the pig’s finer qualities. (Incidentally, there is a theory that ‘sweating like a pig’ refers not to the curly-tailed, pink variety, but to the pig in the iron smelting process. Who knew?)
Poor beleaguered pigs are known chiefly, it seems, for being dirty, smelly, and getting in the way – although, coming from the countryside myself, in my experience I am far more likely to find my car obstructed by sheep or cows than by a road hog. Hogs (another name for pigs, especially when domesticated) seem to keep themselves neatly to the side of the road.
Having cleared up that injustice, let’s have a look at a few more expressions featuring our porcine friends:
A pig in a poke
The British expression ‘a pig in a poke’ refers to something bought without having first been assessed – it helps if you know that a poke, in this sense, is a sack. Customers at markets would be cautioned against buying their weekly pig without checking it out first – you never know, it might end up being an animal of less commercial value, which is where we get the expression letting the cat out of the bag.
You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear
I’m no dab-hand at crafting handbags, I’d be the first to admit, but – were I ever to give it a whirl – I’d know better than to grab the nearest pig and cut off her ear. It just wouldn’t work. Nobody wants to carry around their change and make-up in a sow’s ear – as this expression wisely notes. Of course, it also has a metaphorical significance: the implication is that something (or, when used snobbishly, someone) of poor quality cannot be turned into something (or someone) of good quality.
Casting pearls before swine
This is another activity which it would never have crossed my mind to attempt, in the unlikely circumstance that I ever find myself in possession of pearls – but it has scriptural basis. It comes from Jesus’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in the Gospel of Matthew, and advises that it is foolish to offer that which is valuable to those who won’t appreciate it, or who will seek to destroy it. I think a pig could look rather dashing in pearls, myself, but perhaps that’s missing the point.
And in other languages
It’s not just the English language, of course, which delights in idioms about pigs. Here are a few examples of how pigs have weaselled their way (how’s that for a mixed-metaphor?) into expressions across Europe and further afield.
Wir haben zusammen noch keine Schweine gehütet!
If a German acquaintance reminds you that you ‘have still not kept pigs together’, there’s a strong chance they’re telling the truth – but I’m afraid it’s not a simple statement of fact, still less a literal aspiration for the future. The implication is that you don’t yet know each other well enough to drop formalities. Heaven knows, nothing bonds people closer than pig-farming.
A cada puerco le llega su San Martín
In Spanish, the equivalent of the English expression ‘everyone gets their just deserts’ (referring to an archaic definition of ‘desert’; ‘that which one deserves’) is ‘each pig gets its St. Martin’. To understand this fully, it helps to know that St. Martin’s Day, on 11 November, is traditionally a day for matacía (or pig slaughter) in Spain.
…si les petits cochons ne le mangent pas
Translating literally from French as ‘if the little pigs don’t eat him’, this expression essentially means ‘…if nothing gets in his way’ – for example, ‘Il ira loin, si les petits cochons ne le mangent pas’ translates as ‘He’ll go far, if nothing gets in his way’. Few of us are in any real danger of being eaten by little pigs (I’d class big pigs among the many more likely threats to existence, for a start) this idiom has a certain macabre charm that I rather like.
Om die vark in die verhaal te wees
This Afrikaans expression can be literally translated as ‘to be the pig in the tale’, and means to be the bad guy. Anyone familiar with the fable of the Three Little Pigs might question the villainy of this humble creature, but it’s no worse than the English equivalent of scapegoat, which actually refers to a sacrificial goat sent into the wilderness to die (see Leviticus 16 for more details.)
On that cheerful note, let’s bid adieu to pigs for the time being. I was going to mention ‘saving your bacon’, but it seems a little insensitive, now that I’ve grown rather fond of our four-legged, besnouted friend – not just for being adorable (although they are) but for enriching many languages around the world.