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To my Spanish ears, the acronym PIGS (for Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) or PIIGS (for Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) sounds offensive. The Spanish equivalent “cerdo” is a strong word rarely said in jest. In other cultures, the concept is perhaps even more vexing.

It puzzles me that the international magazine The Economist, a political correctness champion most of the time, keeps using PIGS or PIIGS and apparently thinks nothing of it. Is there a linguistic explanation to what I see as unexpected insensitiveness by this magazine?

"PIGS" is slightly offensive in English too. I don't know why the Economist chose it, though. –  Mark Beadles May 29 '12 at 14:59
I've never heard that acronym before. Are they trying to be insulting? Or maybe it was just intended to be amusing. –  Jay May 29 '12 at 15:06
If they want it to be pronounceable, it's either SPIG, GIPS, GISP, or PIGS. Only one is a real word. –  Paul Richter May 29 '12 at 15:12
@MarkBeadles - yes odd since the Economist is normally such a strong supporter of the less fiscally conservative countries ! –  mgb May 29 '12 at 15:25
There's a fairly good Wikipedia article on the acronym, its origin, and the controversy surrounding it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PIGS_(economics) –  J.R. May 29 '12 at 17:36

3 Answers 3

Pig has a wide range of figurative uses - They're nearly all "unfavourable", but they're certainly not all "offensive". For example...

A wall where the bricks aren't laid level is said to have a pig in it.

To make a pig's ear of something means to do it badly, wrongly or awkwardly.

Pig-iron is crude iron from a smelting furnace, cast in oblong blocks (ingots, or "pigs").

In the current (Euro-) economic climate, PIGS and PIIGS obviously carry "unfavourable" connotations. Any/all of the "anacronymised" countries could bring down the Euro, with potentially disastrous economic, political, and sociological consequences for millions of people.

Collectively referring to these countries as PIGS (rather than SPIG or GIPS, for example), is just dry humour reflecting the fact that collectively they represent a pig of a problem.

EDIT: Per comments below, it seems "I finished the maths exam, but the last question was a pig" is primarily British usage. This answer already has two downvotes, so I'm guessing some people find all figurative usage of "pig" offensive.

From my (UK) perspective, this usage of PIGS is similar to WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). It's obviously intended to be derogatory/disparaging, but the word itself isn't offensive.

Your main argument, that "pig" has a wide range of figurative uses, is not convincing. We know "pig" here is used in the pejorative sense. But you do give your opinion and answer my question in saying that "it is just dry humour". –  Albertus May 29 '12 at 15:47
@Albertus: I don't know why you're unconvinced that "pig" has a wide range of figurative uses in English. I don't know Spanish, but I think I can safely say that the word doesn't have such a broad range in French, for example. Perhaps you're unwilling to be convinced because Spanish is like French, in that all figurative usages of cochon are very closely tied to the idea of the animal as dirty, greedy, fat, messy. Whereas in English, "that's a pig" can just mean "that's very inconvenient/difficult to resolve", for example. –  FumbleFingers May 29 '12 at 16:07
@FumbleFingers: How common is "That's a pig" <=> "That's difficult" ? Is it a regional phrase? –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner May 29 '12 at 17:47
@Frustrated: oxforddictionaries says a pig of a xxxx is British informal used to describe something unpleasant or difficult. As a Brit, I see nothing odd about saying "I'm having a problem changing a flat tyre - I've undone three wheel nuts, but the last one is a pig". Perhaps Americans/Australians/etc. would find this odd, I don't know. –  FumbleFingers May 29 '12 at 18:01
@FumbleFingers: I've never heard the expression in North America. Friends from Australia and New Zealand never seem to say it either, though maybe they just avoid it when I'm around so as not to confuse me. ;) –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner May 29 '12 at 18:03

In the United States pig is associated with having a big appetite, with "pigging out" - something one can admit to without loss of status. It's also used in the surrealistic or apocalyptic image of "when pigs fly," and to connote messiness (but not dirtiness) as in "your room is a pig pen." It's an amusing image, but doesn't seem to have the level of impact and potential insult that cochon does in French. (A French friend of mine would always point this out about the last name of an import agent we were dealing with - a Mr Cochon.)

PIGS joins the acronyms BRICS and CIVETS and indeed seems to have been designed from birth to discourage investment – as this Christian Science Monitor article points out:


Haha switching to "Giips" doesn't seem to be much better –  tenfour May 29 '12 at 18:09
The article presents BRICs and CIVETS as positive terms designed to encourage investment. –  Mechanical snail Sep 12 '12 at 5:37

The Financial Times and Barclays Capital determined they wouldn't use the acronym PIIGS (and would instead spell out the countries it represents) in 2005 because "it can be construed as having pejorative undertones." The Wikipedia entry for the term declares it "is a pejorative acronym" and that "some news and economic organisations have limited or banned use of the term because of criticism regarding perceived offensive connotations."

The New York Times has used the acronym, but one article from November of 2011 indicates the sensitivity of the term with this sentence: "First there was Greece, and then the rest of what at first were called the PIIGS, but now, in a spate of political correctness, are called the GIIPS." And indeed GIIPS is a commonly used alternative acronym in place of PIIGS.

More: The Wall Street Journal ran PIIGS to the Slaughterhouse. Meet GIIPS. on July 15 2011 to announce an official acronym switch.

Funny, I find GIIPS too evocative of merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gyp, potentially an even more offensive term all around. –  choster May 29 '12 at 20:44

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