And pigs may fly
For some reason pigs have been occupying my thoughts recently. This phrase is generally used to indicate the speaker’s incredulity at what has just been said or proposed.
Of course, pigs don’t fly and because of their bulk and because their line of vision is generally downwards as they root around in the undergrowth for food, they are one of the most unlikely of the generally domesticated animals to want to fly.
What surprised me was that the original version of the phrase was much longer as a dip into the 1616 version of John Withal’s A shorte Dictionarie for Yonge Begynners reveals, “Pigs fly in the ayre with their tayles forward”. This was the regular form of expressing incredulity for a couple of centuries until the more truncated version gained popularity.
One of the most famous literary uses of the phrase was the line in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865. “I’ve a right to think,” said Alice sharply… “Just about as much right,” said the Duchess, “as pigs have to fly.”
In 1909 in an attempt to give a lie to the proverb, Baron Brazabon of Tara, an early pioneering aviator, strapped a piglet into a wastepaper basket and bundled it on to his biplane. Nice try as it was I am not sure we can count that!
To make a pig’s ear of
This phrase is used to signify that someone has made a complete mess of something. But why a pig’s ear?
The cognoscenti of Cockney rhyming slang will tell you that pig’s ear stands for beer, as in “Now, Jack, I’m goin’ to get a tiddley wink of pig’s ear” as observed by D W Barrett in his Life and Work among Navvies of 1880. There have been other contenders for the crown of cockney slang for beer including Charles Freer, far and near, oh my dear, fusilier and Crimea but the gezzer I met down the rub a dub assured me that pig’s ear was the most widely used. But that doesn’t really help us with our quest for the origin of our saying.
A more fruitful line of enquiry is to consider the old proverb, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, which has been in use since at least the 16th century. In 1579 Stephen Gossom uses it in Ephemerides to denote the pursuit of a hopeless task, “Seekinge too make a silke purse of a Sowes eare”. It is tempting, and I think compelling, to think that a pig’s ear is the consequence of pursuing this fruitless course. You may think you are going to make a silk purse but all you end up with is a pig’s ear, nothing more and nothing less. Interestingly, the modern usage of pig’s ear doesn’t appear in print until the mid 20th century, in a 1950 edition of the Readers’ Digest, “If you make a pig’s ear of the first one, you can try the other one.”
On the pig’s back
This phrase, whose origins are Irish, it being a literal translation of the Gaelic “ar mhuin na muice”, is used to denote someone who is well off or in luck. It was in use in Ireland from the 17th century and a good illustration of its usage and meaning is this quotation from John Whitbread’s play, Lord Edward, which saw the light of day in 1894, “Begorra he’s on the pig’s back this time.” Quite why, I don’t know but if you are astride a pig you are at least away from the mud.