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Pigs might fly

Q From Tom Young: Do you know where the phrase when pigs fly came from?

A There are lots of variations on sayings associated with the idea of pigs flying, as an example of something obviously nonsensical or of some event that is extremely unlikely to occur. “Things might improve if the other party gets elected,” one person might say. “And pigs might fly,” comes the sarcastic rejoinder. My own favourite way of enlivening meetings was to wait until somebody produced a choice bit of wishful thinking disguised as a strategy proposal and then point out of the window in a surprised sort of way. “Oh, look,” I would say, “there’s a pig flying by!”. (As Dilbert once said, I’m not anti-management, I’m just anti-idiot.)

Let us return to our muttons, or rather our porks. We have to go back a long way to find the original of this idea. It seems to have been a traditional Scottish proverb, which was first written down in 1586 in an edition of John Withal’s English-Latin dictionary for children. This had an appendix of proverbs rendered into Latin, of which one was the usual form of the proverb in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: “pigs fly in the air with their tails forward”. If they did indeed fly, the proverb argues, flying backwards would seem a small extra feat.

Another version is more famous, because it appears in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: “I’ve a right to think,” said Alice sharply... “Just about as much right,” said the Duchess, “as pigs have to fly.” Other forms that have appeared at various times include and pigs could fly if they had wings, and pigs may fly, but they are very unlikely birds.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Apr. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 6 April 2002.