In the Terry Pratchett's book, 'Reaper Man', there is a passage:

Most species do their own evolving, making it up as they go along, which is the way Nature intended. And this is all very natural and organic and in tune with mysterious cycles of the cosmos, which believes that there's nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error to give a species moral fibre and, in some cases, backbone.

This is probably fine from the species' point of view, but from the perspective of the actual individuals it can be a real pig, or at least a small pink root-eating reptile that might one day evolve into a real pig.

I'm reading this book in English, in Polish and in Russian at the same time. And I didn't really think of this phrase while reading in English, but then I noticed that translators understood it differently. The Russian one took it literally. But the Polish one translated this bold phrase as something like a 'dirty trick'. I couldn't find anything about this being an idiom, though.

What do you think? Is one of the translators wrong or is it just possible to understand it in both ways? Thanks for any help.

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    "I'm reading [Terry Pratchett] in English, in Polish and in Russian at the same time." ... why don't you add 'while motorcycle-jumping the Grand Canyon in scuba gear' while you're at it? – Mitch Apr 2 '16 at 16:51
  • In German one might use the word "schweinemäßig" normally meaning bad (like in bad weather), it can also mean "exhausting" in "an exhausting job" or "most complicated". In the case of "Reaper Man" I would use (in slang) "saumäßig" (saumaessig), meaning a big and not negotioable problem. – Alfons Kluepfel Nov 15 '16 at 10:09
  • There is, of course, a bit of punning going on here. The idiom "real pig" generally means something that absorbs a lot of resources or is otherwise undesirable. But of course, in the above context, evolution could result in a real pig. It's a little clumsy, but I think he's trying to say that evolution is not nice to the failures -- the mutation that results in a leg coming out of your forehead is unlikely to lead to a pleasant life. – Hot Licks Nov 15 '16 at 13:32

Although I can give you a bunch of links showing it being explained or used, I unfortunately can't find an "official" one explaining the meaning or origin. Here are the links I was able to find:

The Curious Incident 13 - Genius

Yahoo Answers question referencing the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which also used the idiom.

Forum thread asking about idiom meanings, including this one.

Essentially, it's a British English idiom, and is a slightly shortened form of "a real pig of a day" essentially meaning a day which was utterly terrible. In the context Pratchett is using it here, it's saying something along the lines of "a really, really bad thing."

Edit: As NVZ pointed out, this is a general idiom of "a pig of [something]" meaning "a difficult or unpleasant thing or task". (Oxford Learners)

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    It's an idiom familiar to me. Of course Pratchett is doing one of his usual tricks and dismantilng an idiom, pretending that one of the words in the idiom has its usual meaning and replacing it with something else; all for comic effect. – Colin Fine Apr 2 '16 at 17:21
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    You may add this to your answer. a pig of a something = (British English, informal) a difficult or unpleasant thing or task. Oxford Learners – NVZ Apr 2 '16 at 17:35
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    Rather than a "really, really bad thing" I'd characterize it as being a "real bitch" or "really frustrating, or hard to deal with" also a "real bear" – Jim Apr 2 '16 at 17:36
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    Oh shoot, that must have been posted while I was in the edit screen; I was distracted by TV. :P Should I remove that and leave the link to @JulieCarter's answer? – John Clifford Apr 2 '16 at 17:42
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    Let it be. Who cares. :) – NVZ Apr 2 '16 at 17:44

a pig of a something (idiom, British English):

a difficult or unpleasant thing or task

"I've had a pig of a day."

Source: Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary

Pratchett is using a play on words to emphasise how difficult and tiresome the evolutionary process is for individual organisms, where only the fittest survive and go on to reproduce. He notes the evolutionary success of the pig as a species, although pigs and their meat are traditionally regarded as 'unclean' and to be avoided.

  • It's a bit of a thorny one because although NVZ linked me to the Oxford Learners definition of "a pig of something" before Julie posted this answer, I didn't edit it into mine until afterwards. – John Clifford Apr 2 '16 at 17:52
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    I actually found this independently of NVZ's comment. I am disabled, therefore my typing is slow. If it causes problems I will delete it. – Julie Carter Apr 2 '16 at 17:54
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    I'm asking for the opposite, Julie: you posted before I put the same thing into my answer, so it's a perfectly valid answer that had information mine lacked. – John Clifford Apr 2 '16 at 17:54
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    Well, JC meets JC. I think both can stay. :) It's unfortunate that people vote down without helping to improve the answer. – NVZ Apr 2 '16 at 18:11
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    AFAIK only Middle-Eastern, Jewish and Islamic (which spread from there) cultures prohibit pig/pork as unclean; European/American and (most? all?) Eastern ones figure the modest effort to clean the slaughtered pig is repaid by the results. But +1 to you and John both for excellent answers to the question asked. – dave_thompson_085 Apr 2 '16 at 23:52

Another, unrelated, meaning, at least in American English, is to take more than one's fair share:

I wouldn't give him first choice. Even if he only needs one, he can be a real pig and take four or five.

It can also mean to be ill-mannered, especially in a sexist way:

I have to apologize for his inappropriate jokes. He can be a real pig sometimes.

  • if the meaning is unrelated, is this an answer? – Spagirl Nov 15 '16 at 10:26

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