The English language contains a lot of words and phrases that include the name of an animal and are, as such, intended as metaphors for specific types of human behaviour. Most of these hinge on a key aspect of the perceived character of the animal in question. Thus, to fox is to outwit through guile or cunning and clearly derives from the long-held belief, reinforced in children’s literature, that the fox is a creature that achieves its goals by deception.
In the same way, to parrot is to spout words to which the speaker does not attach any real meaning, in the same way that a caged parrot can appear to have a huge vocabulary but actually understand none of it. The sloganeering nature of politics is fertile ground for parrots. To dog is to follow relentlessly, whatever obstacles are thrown in the path of the dogger, and alludes to the ability of a pack of wild dogs to track its prey for days, if that is what it takes.
All of these examples bear some resemblance to the animal in question. But what about the various phrases that reference pigs? Why are they all so negative? For example, if you were to call someone a pig, you would be implying that they are greedy and/or extremely messy in their eating habits. This association of greed with pigs is best exemplified by the common caricature of the über-capitalist, the grande bourgeoisie in Marx’s classification, as a pig in a top hat smoking a fat cigar. It is probably no accident that George Orwell chose the pigs as leaders of the revolution in Animal Farm. It will be remembered that the pigs eventually subvert the revolution to their own ends.
On the other hand, if you were to call someone a swine, you would be suggesting that they had shown some degree of moral turpitude. And even though pigs are known to be extremely intelligent animals, more so than dogs and cats, we insist on ‘casting pearls before swine’, suggesting that these much maligned beasts are incapable of judging beauty. Well, so is every other animal, as far as one can tell. Why single out pigs as the vehicle for such an insulting metaphor? In this case, it would seem that an unwarranted degree of prejudice against our porcine friends is at play.
What about the phrase ‘to hog the limelight’? Is this behaviour either typical of or confined to pigs? ‘Snouts in the trough’ does have some basis in reality, but this metaphor, while accurate when applied to politicians, also has its roots in the notion that pigs are greedy. And why, if we make an almighty cock-up of a task, do we claim to have made ‘a pig’s ear’ of that endeavour? Finally, it is a well-known fact that ‘you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’. I have news for you: you can’t make a silk purse out of an elephant’s ear either; and you can’t make a Savile Row suit out of empty breakfast cereal boxes. Neither of these statements is any more fatuous than the one about sows’ ears.
In fact, it is difficult to find any positive references to pigs anywhere in popular culture. The nearest is probably Porky Pig, the shy, mild-mannered hero of many Warner Brothers cartoons. It is clear that the characterization is an affectionate one, but Porky is still the straight man to the lunacy of characters like Daffy Duck.
However, it is worth noting that this negative stereotyping of pigs is not mirrored in Chinese culture. The most recent Year of the Pig (2007), which coincided with the element gold or metal, an event that happens only one year in sixty, spurred a rush of young couples into marriage, anxious to take advantage of this propitious conjunction. And if you believe such tosh, people born in pig years are kind, loyal and trustworthy.
But I won’t boar you with further details. “Th-th-th-that’s all folks!”