When Pigs Fly: 5 Pig-Related Idioms & Their Origins

Many of our common idioms derive from our common agricultural past. Here are a few pig-specific phrases that especially amuse me.

by Rodney Wilson
PHOTO: Mark Robinson/Flickr

As a writer-farmer, I cherish any opportunity to discuss my love of working the land and caring for livestock. It’s an honor and privilege to share my limited knowledge and experiences with an invested community such as the readership represented here.

But, also as a writer-farmer, it’s rarer for me to cover the other love reflected in the title: my love of words. The two aren’t exclusive—much of the language we use today was developed by a humanity much more invested in and involved with agricultural work, and this agronomic culture from the past shows up in a lot of the idioms and sayings still in use today. Consider “low-hanging fruit” or “hard row to hoe.” Both are phrases commonly spoken by people who’ve never plucked an apple from a low-slung branch or turned up soil (and calluses) with a wood-handled implement.

I’m a pig guy, though, and hold a special affinity for porcine idioms. Lucky for me, we have a slew of them are available to employ throughout the day. This makes sense, because at one time it was super common for family farms to raise pigs, which were referred to as “mortgage lifters” for their high profit potential. It seems like a lot of people liked to talk about the animal, hence all the pig-related idioms.

So, just for fun, here are a handful of my favorite pig-themed idioms and idioms, as well as a few related reflections from my own time farming.

1. “Eating High on the Hog”

This phrase, usually directed at someone living an extravagant life, refers to the choicest, and thereby costlier, cuts of meat a pig can offer—tenderloin and loin roasts, for example. I raise Berkshire pigs because of their ability to produce more of these fine cuts, though they also have a big enough belly, which is pretty low on a hog, to provide plenty of delicious bacon.

2. “Pig in a Poke”

The idiom refers to a person making a purchase sight unseen and getting something inferior to expectations. It’s assumed to come from butchers wrapping lesser cuts of meat in a sack—a “poke”—for unsuspecting customers. Today, people see farmers markets as more, not less, transparent food sources, and I take my responsibilities as a market producer very seriously. No pigs in a poke here.

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3. “Happy as a Pig in Clover”

If you’ve ever opened up a fresh pasture to a herd of pigs, you know exactly how happy fresh forage can make them. This is one of the main reasons I pasture my pigs—I feel better raising hogs outside than in, and I take a lot of joy in watching them contentedly graze and root for food. And it’s good for them, too: Ladino clover, in particular, contains more protein than alfalfa.

4. “Casting Pearls Before Swine”

This idiom usually means that a person is wasting his or her time giving something valuable to people who won’t know what it is or don’t want to use it. So yeah, given the chance, pigs will just eat your pearls. Pigs will eat just about anything.

5. “When Pigs Fly”

This is one of many absurdist idioms meaning “That will never happen.” There are a wide range of pig breeds, and folks can choose from a variety of preferences when bringing swine onto the farm. From hairy to heritage, spotted to speckled, it’s not hard to find a pig you consider delightful, and different pig breeds can provide more of whatever meat you’re seeking. However, of the roughly 2 billion domesticated hogs on the planet, not to mention wild boar populations, not a single one has yet managed to grow wings and take to the air. For now anyway, it’s impossible. Pigs will fly, as it were, when pigs fly.

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