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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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.
"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 !
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"
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.