Looking at the results of yesterday's programming effort, I concluded that "I have made a right pig's ear of this."

I then wondered, why a pig's ear? Does anyone know why pig's ear is used to mean something messy and useless?

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    This site suggests that it originally comes from the phrase "You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear", which is a derivative of a 16th century phrase "None can make goodly silke of a gotes fleece." Hope that helps! – Andy F May 7 '11 at 9:52
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Eric Partridge gives the following in his A Dictionary of Slang and Unconvential English (Supplement):

pig's ear occurs in D. W. Barrett, Navvies, 1880.—2A 'side light colour signal' (Railway, 3rd): railwaymen's: C. 20.—3. A blunder: mostly middle-class: since ca. 1945. Elizabeth Hargreaves, A Handful of Silver, 1954l. '"I've made a real pig's ear of it, haven't I?" said Basil, with an attempt at lightness.' (Laurie Atkinson, who asks, 'Rhyming s. for smear?')

In the main edition, "pig's ear" is given as rhyming slang for beer.

Richard A. Spears, in his book Slang and Euphemism gives:

Pig's ear! 1. an exclamation, a euphemism for *Pig's ass! (q.v.) 2. beer; a glass of beer. Rhyming slang.

And since he mentioned the source of the euphemism:

Pig's ass (also Pig's arse!) an exclamation. For synonyms see 'Zounds! [widespread slang, 1900s]

which caused me to look at Partridge's definition of "Pig's arse":

Pig's arse A low c.p. of dissent or disbelief: Australian: since ca. 1945. An adaption of pig's eye — which, by the way, had itself > Australian by 1945.

and then to

pig's eye, 2, was, by 1959, dead. (Leechman.) —3. To convey an emphatic negative, thus: 'In a pig's eye, you could!': Canadian: adopted, ca. 1945, ex U.S. (Leechman.) The phrase (in a pig's eye* was orig. euphemistic for in a pig's arse or ... arse-hole, as in a bawdy song current long before 1940. (Am. correspondent.)

Given all this, it is tempting to conclude that a "pig's ass" would represent something pretty foul.

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    So it's really a euphemism for a pig's rear? That makes sense. – Peter Shor May 7 '11 at 20:21
  • Thank you. Robusto. I shall really have to get myself a copy of Partridge. – Brian Hooper May 9 '11 at 11:48

"I then wondered, why a pig's ear? Does anyone know why pig's ear is used to mean something messy and useless?"

Very simply it refers to another old saying. You can't make a silk purse of a pig's ear. If you COULD that would be a wondrous accomplishment, indeed. The reverse would be making a pig's ear out of a silk purse... which would be taking something elegant and turning it in to something useless... hence "you've made a right pig's ear of that!"

John Steell a Scottish sculpter was commissioned to make a large bronze of a Greek warrior on horse back. It was completed in 1883. However before completion he was in dispute over his fee and in annoyance he used a cast of a pigs ear to substitute for the horses ears - a last laugh indeed. The comparison with an earlier version has confirmed this substitution. No doubt he was privately keen that people knew he had 'made a pig's ear' of the sculpture on purpose !

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