Since some 10,000 years ago, when humans stopped being hunters and gatherers and settled down in one place, with cultivated crops and farm animals providing food, the pig has had an essential role in mankind's domesticity. For those primitive farmers, the beauty of the pig was that it was easily fed and no time was lost in grooming it. Yet it provided fresh food plus sausages, bacon, ham and other charcuterie during the harsh winter months when food was scarce.
The Spanish, French, Italians and the Chinese get more out of the pig than most nations: just about every part of the animal is used in some way or another. Of the three European nations, I am especially fond of French charcuterie, but the other two aren't far behind. The Chinese don't do much in the way of charcuterie, but they have some splendid pork dishes.
I like the Spanish joke. "What is the best feathered game?" "Ah, if only the pig could fly!"
The Spanish make fullest use of the pig, even finding a use for the penis —although not, as far as I know, in the kitchen.
Some years ago I was invited to a sopes mallorquines lunch at a large manorial house in Lloseta. The lunch was organised by a society that investigates the origins and history of sopes and meets frequently to make any new recipes their research uncovers. At that time they had found 32 authentic recipes and were still counting. They will almost certainly have discovered a few more since then.
While the society's cooks got on with making three kinds of sopes, a friend took me on a tour of the house. Out in the yard, where there was a chicken coop, we passed a barn-like door and my friend pointed at what looked like a grubby cigar stub hanging from a nail. He asked: "Do you know what that is?" I didn't and it turned out to be a pig's penis that is traditionally used to rub against string used to tie anything that is exposed to the elements. The penis is fatty and the coating of grease it gives to the string makes it stronger and protects it from the rain. These are the little things we don't normally know about unless we live down on the farm— or visit one from time to time.
With the pig playing such an important part in the everyday life of country and city people, it's not surprising that this animal filled the language with vivid and graphic phrases that became common usage. But considering that pork and its by-products were so popular and such an essential part of the daily diet, it is somewhat surprising that the pig words and phrases were often highly pejorative.
The origin of our pig word is unknown. We get it from the Middle English ‘pigge', which may have come from ‘picbread', the Old English word that literally meant swinebread: in other words, acorns, the pig's favourite fodder.
The Spanish word for pig, ‘puerco', comes from the Latin ‘porcus', as does the French, 'porc'. Our word pork also goes back to the Latin root. The more common Spanish word for pig, ‘cerdo', is derived from the Latin ‘seta', meaning thick hair or bristle.
Pig features frequently in slang. Since the early 19th century, it has meant a policeman and other law-enforcing men such as prison officers. In the Royal Navy, a pig was the lower ranks' name for an officer. The term ‘pig's meat' meant officers' wives or girlfriends. It was also used for a Wren who would date only officers.
A pig was a rugby football in Australia because of its pigskin casing. In horse-racing, a ‘pigskin' was a saddle and a ‘knight of the pigskin' was a jockey. Australian slang for a jockey in the early 1900s was ‘pigskin artist'.
The term ‘in pig' (meaning pregnant) has the sound of a low-class word, but it was upper class slang in rural areas. Nancy Mitford used it in The Pursuit of Love (1945) —and if she wrote it then it must have been a U-word.
In the early 19th century, ‘pig months' were the months with an ‘r' in them. This was before refrigeration and the pig months were those in which it was relatively safe to eat fresh pork — which was best avoided during hot weather.
The word pig is sometimes used for emphasis or intensity. In the 1940s, ‘pig ignorant' meant extremely ignorant. When Londoners said they were ‘pig sick' of something, they meant they were highly irritated or disgusted.
A ‘pig's whisper' was a grunt and ‘in a pig's whisper' was 19th century slang for extremely quickly. Dickens wrote: "You'll find yourself in bed in something less than a pig's whisper".
The term ‘drive one's pigs to market' meant to snore. Its origin is in Swift: "I'gad he fell asleep, and snored so hard that we thought he was driving his hogs to market."
In cards, the ‘pig's eye' is the ace of diamonds. It can also mean splendid or excellent and can even be used to convey an emphatic negative as in: "In a pig's eye, you could!"
A Scottish colloquial term from about 1780 was ‘to go to pigs and whistles', which meant to be ruined. In Scotland, pigs and whistles meant fragments. An early 17th-20th century term was ‘when pigs fly’, which meant never. This was similar to ‘pigs might fly! Perhaps'. Another term for never, ‘pig shearing time', was 20th century railwaymen's slang.
As you'd expect, pig also comes into rhyming slang. A ‘pig's fry' means a tie or try, and ‘pig's ear' isn't for eating: it's a beer. In East End pubs, Cockneys sometimes ask for a pint of pigs. ‘Pigs and roast' is for eating, but there's nothing meaty about it: it's Army slang for toasted bread.