The Secret Origin Story of the Lipstick Pig - etymology & popular usage

It took me a while to find an article with all the answers I wanted, but at last I came across Ben Zimmer's entry on Slate, "Who First Put 'Lipstick on a Pig'? - The origins of the porcine proverb."

According to Zimmer,

"The concept is an old one, but... [m]any porcine proverbs describe vain attempts at converting something from ugly to pretty, or from useless to useful. The famous maxim that 'You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear' dates back at least to the mid-16th century. "
And then there's my favorite:
" 'A hog in armour is still but a hog' was recorded in 1732 by British physician Thomas Fuller. As Francis Grose later explained in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796), a 'hog in armour' alludes to 'an awkward or mean looking man or woman, finely dressed.' Charles H. Spurgeon noted another variation in his 1887 compendium of proverbs, The Salt-Cellars: 'A hog in a silk waistcoat is still a hog'... "
Zimmer goes on to note,
"The 'lipstick' variation is relatively novel—not surprising, since the word lipstick itself dates only to 1880. The incongruity of pigs and cosmetics was expressed as early as 1926 by the colorful editor Charles F. Lummis, writing in the Los Angeles Times: 'Most of us know as much of history as a pig does of lipsticks.' But the exact wording of 'putting lipstick on a pig (or hog)" doesn't show up until much later. In 1985, the Washington Post quoted a San Francisco radio host on plans for renovating Candlestick Park (instead of building a new downtown stadium for the Giants): 'That would be like putting lipstick on a pig.'"
Finally, Zimmer points out that it was actually Texan Governor Ann Richards (archenemy of Bush the Elder and Bush the Younger) that really helped make plays on this phrase popular, with winners such as "This is not another one of those deals where you put lipstick on a hog and call it a princess" and "You can put lipstick on a hog and call it Monique, but it is still a pig."

Definitely check out Zimmer's delightfully informative "Porcine Proverb" phrase-origin article for the full scoop. And stop by the "Put lipstick on a pig" Topic, an insightful message-board discussion of the origin, definition, and usage of the "lipstick on a pig" phrase and its relatives.

Also see TIME magazine's informative article, "A Brief History Of: 'Putting Lipstick on a Pig'" (by By Marti Covington and Maya Curry) and Urban Dictionary's short and offensive "lipstick on a pig" urban-slang definition.

And if you've got a lot of spare time on your hands, here are some more newsy links on the Pig Lipstick topic:

And a few more:

Hey, YOU:
If any of these links are total wasters, tell me and I'll have 'em removed. Cool. Thanx ;)

Barack Obama discusses putting lipstick on a pig with David Letterman.

Dilbert's boss uses the pig-lipstick phrase.


Anonymous said...

On 2008-09-10 there was an amusing feature on NPR's All Things Considered devoted to the application of lipstick to pigs and the various references to this activity made by politicians. It is described as follows on the page at which you can listen to it, :

"The phrase "lipstick on a pig" is commonly employed by politicians including Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, Vice President Dick Cheney and Rep. Charles Rangel. Joel Salatin, a farmer from Swoope, Va., talks about what actually happens when one attempts to put lipstick on a pig."

Lucas Brachish said...

Thanks, Erik Kowal. That NPR link is great. I'll add a hyperlink to the audio.



Over at the forums, Ken Greenwald also notes that, "Lexicographer Ben Zimmer’s followed up his article... with one on titled Of Pigs and Silk and Lipstick, which contains some additional interesting information.

"There is also some discussion and thoughts to be found on, among other things, ‘controlling the meaning of the words,’ at Dennis Baron's Web of Language from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – a site/blog worth bookmarking or subscribing to – titled 'Pig-gate: any way you spin it, lipstick on a pig is politics as usual.'"