pig

The ultimate origin of pig is a bit of mystery. One would expect a word like pig to appear in Old English and have a common Germanic root; the expected form would be *picga or *pigga. But the word does not appear in the extant Old English manuscripts, except in one case, the compound picbred, pig-bread or food for pigs. There is also a 12th century surname of Pigman, which may be related.

The common Germanic root for the animal is swin, or swine as we use it today. This word is common in Old English, while *picga is vanishingly rare. There are also no cognates in other Germanic languages, unless one counts the Dutch big, which also means pig. But the shift from /p/ to /b/ between English and Dutch does not follow any known phonetic pattern. A /p/ in English should remain a /p/ in Dutch. So this just adds to the confusion about the word.

Pig starts to appear with frequency in the 13th century. These early uses are in the sense of piglet. This is rather typical of animal names. They are frequently introduced to mean the young of the species and are then generalized to include the entire species. From the manuscript Ancrene Riwle, written sometime before 1250:

Þe suwe of giuernesse, þet is glutunie, haueð pigges þus i nemmed.
(The sow of greediness, that is gluttony, I have thus named pigs.)

The sense meaning the adult swine appears by c.1387-95 when Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales. From the Prologue referring to pardoner’s possession of false relics:

In a glas he hadde pigges bones.

The use of pig to mean a contemptible person dates to the mid-16th century. From John Heywood’s 1546 A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue:

What byd me welcom pyg.

The sense meaning a gluttonous or greedy person is surprisingly recent, not appearing until the 19th century. From the cartoon caption in the March 1858 Harper’s Magazine depicting a boy who has eaten too much and whose shadow has taken the shape of a pig:

A greedy pig.

The derogatory sense meaning a police officer dates to the early 19th century. The 1811 Lexicon Balatronicum glosses it thusly:

Pig. A police officer. A China street pig; a Bow-street officer. Floor the pig and bolt; knock down the officer and run away.

Various false explanations have been offered for the police officer sense, most stemming from the mistaken idea that term’s origins were in the 1960s. One is that the term derives from the gas masks worn by riot police in the 1960s that made the officers look like pigs. Another is that the term is from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the pigs ran the farm and took away the other animals’ liberties. As we have seen, both of these, as well as any other explanation rooted in the 20th century is incorrect.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition; Liberman’s Word Origins.)

Powered by ExpressionEngine
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton