"(She's/he's) as independent as a pig on ice." An expression used by my wife's maternal grandmother (in her 90's at the time) when referring to a very independent (and very bright) family member on my wife's father's side of the family. I asked what the expression meant or came from, and she replied simply that she had heard it all of her life. I've got some theories and some research guesses. What's your take? I think it's a great expression.

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    Hi, Ron, welcome to ELU! It's an interesting expression. If you have already done some research, please describe what you've discovered, so folks don't duplicate your efforts and can give you better answers. Also, take a minute to check out the topics in the Help Center to learn more about what we're all about. Good luck! – 1006a Aug 14 '18 at 4:05
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    I read a motorcycle review in a magazine probably in the 1990s, saying that a bike handled "like a drunk pig on a skateboard". Nicely descriptive. – upsidedowncreature Aug 14 '18 at 9:27
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    I came across this in the Tom Waites song Cemetery Polka ("Uncle Vernon, Uncle Vernon, independent as a hog on ice") and assumed he had made the phrase up. So, interesting to see that it is a real idiom. – user184130 Aug 14 '18 at 9:29
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    I used to hear "like a hog on ice", but without "independent". Haven't heard it in probably 40 years -- may (oddly) be more of a southern thing. – Hot Licks Aug 14 '18 at 11:40
  • @JamesRandom also my only encounter. – Adam Eberbach Aug 14 '18 at 23:57

Elizabeth Fais has a blog post titled "Confounding Colloquialisms: Expressions that make you go, 'What?'" in which she discusses the phrase:

“As Independent as a Hog on Ice” Flailing About

Strangely enough, I’m not the only one who has been confused by this saying. This phrase has been baffling people for decades. Yes, decades! Etymologists started searching for an explanation from the time it first appeared in the mid 19th century. In 1948 Charles Earle Funk titled his first book of word origins “A Hog on Ice”. His foreword contains a seven (7!) page narrative of his inconclusive quest for the roots of this phrase.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase as “denoting independence, awkwardness, or insecurity.” That about sums it up for a hog that’s slip-n-sliding across the ice, much like Thumper and Bambi in the Disney animated feature. “You’re doing it your way, and making a mess of it,” was what my father meant by his independent-as-a-hog-on-ice speech.

Time magazine usage in 1948, “They like to think of themselves as independents . . . independent as a hog on ice.”

The Free Dictionary claims that it originates from curling, but based on the description of the "inconclusive quest" conducted by Charles Earle Funk, I am highly skeptical of that claim.


Was your wife's maternal grandmother from New England, perhaps?

The earliest reference to "independent as a hog on ice" that I've found comes from Short Patent Sermons (1841), in a sermon entitled "On the Increase of Nominal Saints". The book is by Dow, Jr - allegedly a nom de plume of Elbridge G Paige This is introduced by a quote from Dryden:

Truth is, our land with saints is so run o'er,
And every age produces such a store,
That now there's a need of two New Englands more

Anyway, back to the quote itself:

No wonder Dryden thought there should be two New Englands more when he saw how much hypocrisy there was in the world. What would he think now, if he was alive? But New England, at the present day, isn't what it was when my father was a boy. Then it was the home of uprightness - the people were all as honest as the cooper's cow - independent as a hog on ice - sober as judges - and moral as a quantity of psalm books.

While this answer doesn't explain the origin of the term, it establishes its existence 177 years ago.

There is further indication of the usage of this term on July 1st 1904, in this ghastly (IMHO) article on Filipino independence, published in the Weymouth Gazette, quoting the Manila Times. This usage does show an indication that a "hog on ice" is considered to be uncontrollably independent, and in need of some herding in order to move it in the right direction.

Freedom - or independence, as the native minds like to style it - is indeed the crying need of the native, but the kind of freedom that he requires is the spiritual freedom of which Milton wrote, and not the release from governmental tutelage, which, when considered in the light of his abillity to take care of himself, his country and its industries, would be as the proverbial independence of the "hog on ice." In the present stage of his development the Filipino needs the strong supporting hand of the Aryan race to lead him in the paths of industrial progress and intellectual attainment, and at the same time to support him lest he dash his foot against the stone that always waits for the foot of the unwary.

  • I immediately understood although I'd never heard it before. Does a good simile/ mental image need explanation? BTW pigs are the most independently-minded of common farm animals (cats excluded). So it probably relates to actual happenings in a country with cold winters and C19 farms. – nigel222 Aug 14 '18 at 13:08
  • It is interesting that the first and second use cases seem to be opposites. The first may be a bit sardonic, but in line with "sober as judges" and "moral as psalm books", it implies very strongly independent. Yet the super-racist second quote means unable to actually be successfully independent. – mattdm Aug 14 '18 at 14:50
  • @mattdm you missed/ignored "In the present stage of his development", which is as explicit as can be that "the Filipino" can -- at some time in the future -- be independent. (Yes, yes, it's racist. But be honest: 300 years of colonial rule does not leave one in good shape for running a country. It was 570 years from the Magna Carta to the US Constitution, and even it had serious flaws. TL;DR: you don't become an industrial democracy overnight.) – RonJohn Aug 14 '18 at 16:04
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    I did not miss or ignore that. The first sentence is over-wordy, but it says that "release from governmental tutelage ... would be as the proverbial independence of the 'hog on ice'". The second sentence isn't in contrast to the first; it builds on and emphasizes it. – mattdm Aug 14 '18 at 16:31

My mother often used to say someone 'was as independent as a hog on ice' way back in the 1950's. I never really understood it, but she used many interesting expressions including "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear". She was raised in Michigan. Her parents were of Welsh and German descent. Perhaps the expressions came from them.

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