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What does the English language have against pigs?

John Murray

Whether we talk of cat-like reactions, wolfing down food or being as blind as a bat, it’s clear that the associations we make with animals affect the language we use, but are these connotations always fair?

One creature that always seems to get a raw deal here is the pig. There are at least four expressions that compare negative human behaviour to  that porky quadruped. Let’s look at them:

Pigging out

The practice of eating greedily and noisily is often compared to the way a pig eats from its trough.

The difference is that a pig has little choice but to eat what it’s given in the way it does. Perhaps pigs should be described as eating like lazy humans?


Somebody who is very unwell can be described as “pig-sick” or “sick as a pig”, implying that pigs have poor health.

While swine flu caused a scare in 2009, and pigs can become unwell due to stress, there’s no reason to suppose that a well looked after pig is sick.


A pig-headed person is stubborn to the point of stupidity, which is yet another dig at this undeserving animal.

What does a pig have to be stubborn about? Certainly nothing that shows up a lack of intelligence.


It’s perhaps understandable that pigs are thought of as greedy and dirty, but who decided they were ignorant as well?

Language did, somehow. A ‘pig-ignorant’ person is someone who is extremely stupid, crude and inconsiderate. Again, why do we associate such characteristics with pigs?

It’s time to shift the balance a little in my opinion and introduce some idioms that highlight the positive characteristics of our porcine friends.

For example, pigs have been known to demonstrate intelligence, and be excellent at sniffing out truffles, so why not ‘pig clever’? Why can’t ‘pig-nosed’ be a compliment on somebody’s shrewdness and ability to hunt something out? Maybe we’re the pig-ignorant ones after all?

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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