Where does the expression "lipstick on a pig" come from?

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Sept. 10 2008 5:37 PM

Who First Put "Lipstick on a Pig"?

The origins of the porcine proverb.

When Barack Obama told a crowd at a campaign event on Tuesday, "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig," the McCain campaign swiftly took offense, claiming the analogy was directed at vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki countered the accusation, saying, "That expression is older than my grandfather's grandfather and it means that you can dress something up but it doesn't change what it is." Is the expression really that old?

The concept is an old one, but the phrasing used by Obama is rather new. Many 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. Other old sayings play on the ludicrousness of a pig getting dressed up. "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," meaning, "Circumstances do not alter a man's nature, nor even his manners."

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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."

Ann Richards did much to boost the saying's political popularity when she used a number of variations while governor of Texas in the early '90s. In 1991, in her first budget-writing session, she said, "This is not another one of those deals where you put lipstick on a hog and call it a princess." The next year, at a Democratic barbecue in South Dakota, she criticized the George H.W. Bush administration for using warships to protect oil tankers in the Middle East, which she considered a hidden subsidy for foreign oil. "You can put lipstick on a hog and call it Monique, but it is still a pig," she said. Richards returned to the theme in her failed 1994 gubernatorial race against the younger Bush, using the "call it Monique" line to disparage her opponent's negative ads.

Since then, "lipstick on a pig" has spiced up the political verbiage of everyone from Charlie Rangel to Dick Cheney. John McCain himself used it last year to describe Hillary Clinton's health care proposal. And even though the folksy expression is one that sounds old (and connects back to genuinely old proverbs), it's not quite the vintage of anyone's grandfather's grandfather.

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Ben Zimmer is the executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus, and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.