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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
    Commented May 7, 2011 at 9:52

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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. Commented May 7, 2011 at 20:21
  • Thank you. Robusto. I shall really have to get myself a copy of Partridge. Commented May 9, 2011 at 11:48
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"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!"

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  • The point of "making a silk purse out of a sow's ear" is that only rich people had silk purses. Poor people would be much more likely to make a serviceable but inelegant purse from a pig's ear since the ear is a tough, flexible part of a pig but one that has few other uses. It was often said that poorer people who often kept one pig "used everything but the squeak" when it was finally killed so making purses from the ears would be a logical thing to do.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Dec 7, 2022 at 9:13
  • @BoldBen is there any evidence at all that poor people used pigs' ears as coin purses? Commented Mar 29 at 19:21
  • @Turkeyphant Why would there be? I offer it only as a very likely theory. The Quality who were responsible for recording such things would be extremely unlikely to know that a working person's rough leather purse was made from an ear even though that would be a very simple thing to do, physical evidence would also be very scarce since such purses would almost certainly be destroyed when the owner died if not before.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Mar 31 at 3:33
  • @BoldBen it's just a strange random guess and I'm curious why you think it's "very likely" to make if you've ever seen a pig's ear. Commented Apr 2 at 19:38
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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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    Welcome to English Language & Usage @David. Great story! Can it be substantiated (like, with a reference)?
    – user63230
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 21:22
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At the RN Dockyard museum at Chatham I've heard it suggested that because of it's shape the lid of the relief tube in the corner of the bridge on the wartime destroyer HMS Cavalier was known as the "Pig's ear"

Failure to direct the stream of urine down the tube on a pitching, rolling and heaving deck was referred to as "making a pig's ear of it"

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I can't find a reference to this online but I have read that the expression "making a pig's ear" of something derives from the days of sailing ships.

If sailors made a poor job of reefing the square sails to the yards it was possible to leave triangular pieces of the sail hanging down at the ends of the yards and these were thought to resemble pig's ears. Thus a ship's officer or bo'sun could tell the sailors that they had "made a pig's ear of that" and, possibly, make them go back up and sort it out.

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