Yesterday I posted a question(https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/186907/how-do-expert-writers-avoid-using-i-when-they-mean-to-address-themselves-in) and received a good yet insult-ish like answer. I'm not a native so I am just wondering if the idiom You can't make silk purses out of a sow's ear either is insulting or borders on being so.

thanks every one

  • 1
    It is a common idiom which you can easily google. Jul 25, 2014 at 7:23
  • 1
    @medica: ... so?
    – Marthaª
    Jul 25, 2014 at 21:51
  • It was intended as an insult towards the style of writing being discussed. The answer accepted below doesn't really capture the idea being presented in the comment you referenced. Instead, the point in this case is that it is impossible to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. The parallel being that it is impossible to make artful use of the first person, if using the first person is artless. Please note that I do not support the assertion, rather I am helping to clarify its understanding.
    – Lumberjack
    Jul 25, 2014 at 22:11
  • @Lumberjack ; Yes, the first sentence of your comment goes the clearest way to put the bottom line, I guess. thanks. As to the answer, I accepted it, because comments can't be accepted! His further comment was helpful and to-the-point.
    – Itsme
    Jul 25, 2014 at 22:36
  • @itsme I'm sorry that I wrote my comment in a way that it could be construed as criticizing you. It was not my intention, although one's intention matters little once the words are on the page. The second sentence of my comment was useless, rude and should have been omitted. Apologies.
    – Lumberjack
    Jul 25, 2014 at 23:16

1 Answer 1


It can have a positive or negative connotation based on the context. Let us take a couple of examples. One involves people and the other involves inanimate things (on the side being compared to sow's ears).

Assume that you're the manager of a team of athletes. You're targeting a big championship but your team is mediocre. If you win, you could say, "I made silk purses of a sow's ear." If you lose, you could say, "I did my best to make silk purses of a sow's ear." In both cases, your effort indicated may hold a positive meaning but the team is obviously referred to as sub-par, and so may be considered somewhat insulting to them.

Assume you are making a magnificent chair out of broken pieces of wood. In this case, you have made silk purses of a sow's ear but there is no insult involved, just excellent craftsmanship.

Sources/Further Reading:

  • (I just care/wonder to learn:) Considering the context in this particular case, I have been contemplating some unspoken element of such implication within the idiom that "it's too elusive for a non-native to spot and appreciate linguistic points of this exactness and delicacy."
    – Itsme
    Jul 25, 2014 at 8:07
  • 3
    @Itsme, in the answer given to your question on how experts avoid using "I", the answer's author Ben M merely seems to imply that form doesn't really matter as much as the caliber of the writer's work. In other words, if the work (or the writer) is inherently great, then whether or not "I" is used doesn't matter. Similarly, if the work (or the writer) is lousy, then the usage/avoidance of "I" really doesn't matter. So, no insult is apparent to the person asking the question in this case. Though there are some who act rude, a majority of the members here are pretty nice and understanding.
    – user82373
    Jul 25, 2014 at 8:19
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    The bullet-point format gives the impression that there are two distinct 'forms of the expression', the 'idiomatic' and the 'proverbial'. 'The expression' is always idiomatic (there being no people who need telling that their attempts to actually convert female pigs' outer ears into fashion accessories are doomed to failure); the proverb is merely the form often used to patronise ('You can't ...). Jul 25, 2014 at 8:39
  • @EdwinAshworth, just edited the bullets to distinguish the expression from its proverbial form.
    – user82373
    Jul 25, 2014 at 8:53
  • 2
    They're both 'idiomatic'; the expression always is, in all its slight variants. The proverbial version is just the one that '[is a well-known expression and] expresses a truth based on common sense or the practical experience of humanity' (Wikipedia). So 'You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear' is both idiomatic (having a meaning other than the literal one) and a proverb; 'Bill's trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear' isn't the proverbial version but is still idiomatic. Jul 25, 2014 at 9:02

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