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"(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, 2018 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. Aug 14, 2018 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, 2018 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, 2018 at 11:40
  • @JamesRandom also my only encounter.
    – user71276
    Aug 14, 2018 at 23:57

5 Answers 5

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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.

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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.

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  • 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, 2018 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, 2018 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, 2018 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, 2018 at 16:31
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According to George Eggleston, Jack Shelby: A Story of the Indiana Backwoods (1906), the expression "as independent as a hog on ice" was part of a longer saying:

"Fact is a hog is always happy an' contented. They fairly beats every other sort o' critter for that. You've heard folks say, like, 'as independent as a hog on ice—ef he can't stand up he kin lay down.' But did you ever see a hog on ice?"

Pike confessed that he had not had that pleasure.

"Well," explained the drover. "a hog on ice is the helplessest thing you every seen in all your born days. They ain't made for it. So as soon as he finds he's on ice where he can't walk an' can't stand up, why he jes' does the other thing. He lays down, an' there he'll lay till the crack o' doom, [perfectly happy an' contented like, an' jes' as if layin' on icd was the very thing he was brung up to do. I've seen 'em do that at Cincinnati [Ohio], many's the time. When the river's froze over, they drives the hogs acrist to the 'stilleries over the river. They makes a cinder path ion the ice an' the hogs walks across on that. But when one o' them gits crowded off'n the cinders like an' onto the ice, he jes' lays down as happy an contented like as ever you see. He don't make no try at all, but jest lays there s if he wasn't carin' for no supper to come, an goes on a layin' there till somebody comes along an' gives him a boost back onto the cinder path, an' then he walks on as dignified like, as if he hadn't never been a layin' down at all. ..."

A similar understanding o the expression appears in Frederick Adams, The Kidnapped Millionaires (1901):

"He [The Jumping Jupiter, a boat] is not pretty, but he is as independent as a hog on ice. You know that the hog was so built that when he could not skate he could lie down. He was perfectly satisfied either way. It is the same with 'The Jumping Jupiter.' If he cannot stay on the ocean he can go ashore. ..."

"Western Reserve," in Dialect Notes, volume 4, part 6 (1917) notes a slightly different elongated form:

independent as a hog on ice, adv. phr. Very independent. M[edina County]. ... The phrase is sometimes added, "If he can't stand up, he can lay down and squeal." Ashtabula Co[unty]. Also N[we] Eng[land], K[entuck]y, L[ouisian]a, Ill[inois], Kan[sas].

The Western Reserve (originally the Connecticut Western Reserve) is a region of Northeastern Ohio.

From an untitled item in the [Chicago] Scoop (October 16, 1915):

The Scoop's reprint of a letter to The New York Sun inquiring for the analogy of the saying "as independent as a hog on ice" brought this:

"The old time saying was: 'Independent as a hog on ice. If he can't stand up he can lie down and squeal." George W. Weber."

Ed Mott writes from his hermitage in Goshen (New Jersey, not Indiana) to The Sun that "the analogy of the saying becomes apparent when the whole of it is included, thus: 'As independent as a hog on ice; if it can't stand up it can lie down.'"

Another man writes to The Sun from Washington that 'sixty years ago or more in Maine, where there was much ice and some hogs, the saying was not uncommon with the addition 'if he can't run he can squeal.'"

And much earlier than these, is this instance in a letter dated February 5, 1870, from R. Henderson of West Gwillinbury, Ontario, to the editor of The Journal of Education for Ontario (May 1870):

"...But how do you get along with the people?"

“Not so well, perhaps, as I'd wish, but I'm just as independent as a pig on ice, if I can't walk I can slide.”

And likewise, from an untitled item in the [Washington, D.C.] National Republican (March 26, 1881):

Senator David Davis is enthusiastically mentioned by a Massachusetts paper as being "as independent as a hog on ice." That is to say, if he can't run he can slide. —Buffalo [New York] Express.

In most of these instances the "independence" of the swine on ice is something akin to equanimity born of extreme incapacity or incompetence—an odd association for independence to have. But the range of responses is quite broad—from stoic acceptance ("if he can't stand up, he can lay down") to pleading for help ("if he can't run he can squeal") to improvisational adaptability ("if he can't walk he can slide").

I am inclined to defer to the professed expertise of the hog drover in Jack Shelby regarding the extreme helplessness of pigs on ice, and see the expression as using "independent" in a humorously paradoxical Way. Still, even the earliest of the instances I've cited is three decades younger than the instance (cited in Phil M Jones's answer), in "Dow, Jr.," "On the Increase of Nominal Saints" in Short Patent Sermons Originally Published in the New York Sunday Mercury (1841):

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. Then the sturdy and steady sons of the yeomanry had not turned pedlars ; for they had not discovered the receipts [that is, recipes] for making wooden nutmegs, bas-wood hams, natural curiosities, glue and leather mummies, wooden clocks warranted not to keep time, &c., &c. Oh, there is a vast falling off here, as well as elsewhere!

Although there is a note of humor in the author's rhetoric, he does not seem to intend to imply that the New England of his father's childhood was rife with people who were as contentedly helpless as Eggleston's hog on ice.

Other adjectives that were applied comparatively to "a hog on ice" in print articles during the period 1860–1920 include accommodating, awkward, clumsy, contrary, cool, free, graceful, handy, happy, helpless, imperturbable, indifferent, pale, patient, plain, smooth, and unconcerned. But independent is far and away the most common point of comparison, as well as the earliest.

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I have the full quote (including lay down and squeal) in a letter from a Civil War soldier from Cattaraugus County NY in June, 1862. That pre-dates all of these examples. Thanks so much for the discussion - I was a bit stumped about what he was saying!

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    – Community Bot
    Feb 18, 2023 at 20:31
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    For context, please do include the actual quotation in which the expression occurs, along with the exact date and (if possible) the place where the letter was written. If it's from 1862, it is certainly one of the earliest instances reported on this page—though not as old as the instance from the New York Sunday Mercury and reprinted in a collection published in 1841.
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 19, 2023 at 10:21
  • A scanned image of the letter including the quote (obviously) would be exciting to see.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 19, 2023 at 10:27
  • The quote in the letter is "I am just as independent as a hog on the ice, if he cant stand up he lay down + squeal. " Is there a way to include the scan on this website? Feb 19, 2023 at 23:18
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My mother often used to say that someone 'was as independent as a hog on ice' way back in the 1950s. I never really understood it, but she used many other interesting expressions including "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear".

My mother was raised in Michigan and her parents were of Welsh and German descent. Perhaps these expressions came from those roots.

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