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

Answers to your questions about the news.
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."

Advertisement

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.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

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

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

The World

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies

They’re just not ready to admit it yet.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 16 2014 4:08 PM More Than Scottish Pride Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 1:27 PM The Veronica Mars Spinoff Is Just Amusing Enough to Keep Me Watching
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.