Pelosi's variant of the proverbial skunk-fight models a formulaic expression that can be observed in multiple versions. Versions of the formula are commonly found in political contexts, but may also be found in other contexts. One version of the formula, "never wrestle with a chimneysweep", has been in use since at least 1705.
In different versions of the formula, the "skunk" may be represented as a pig, a hog, a chimney sweep, etc.; variants of the different versions include that the conflict is a "tinkle contest", wrestling match, fight, etc.; the ironic outcome of the conflict may be implied by the context, variously expressed, or even not mentioned at all.
All versions of the formula serve to express the same personal and political precept, namely that merely to engage with some opponents entails certain defeat, if not by their device then by their character. That precept is expressed at length in the following 1770 (paywalled link) letter to the printer of The Public Advertiser (London, Greater London, England) of 25 Jul, p. 1, wherein the skunk is a Polecat:
In the Commencement of this Warfare with the Patriots, I find myself in a somewhat similar Situation with the English when they quarrelled of old with the Scots. Whichever Side prevailed in the Field, the former came always off with the worst. The poor Rogues to the North of the Tweed had nothing to lose by the Inroads of the Enemy; whereas the SOUTHERONS, as the English were then called by the Sawneys ['Sawney' is a "derisive name for a Scotchman" as well as a "simpleton, fool" — definitions from OED], had some fat Geese and Hogs that proved an excellent Repast to the Northern Invaders. Whether beat or victorious, the latter returned always richer than they came, whilst the former scarcely ever broght back any Thing but empty Stomachs.
In like Manner I am by no Means on a Footing with my City Antagonists. The poor Patriots have as little Character as Money to lose: And my Inroads will be as destitute of Profit as my Conquests will be of Fame. A naked Republican has nothing by which he can be taken hold of; he slips like an Eel from the Hands of Satire, and, like a Pole-cat, squirts his Nastiness in the Face of his Pursuer. A Blow has no Effect upon him, but to shake off some of his Dirt: And he gathers all the Reputation he has from the Character of his Opponent: I am, therefore, resolved only to annoy the shabby Varlets with missive Weapons at a Distance; for though there is no Danger, there is Disgrace in coming near them.
Note that throughout the following compilation of dated quotes, internal emphasis has been added by me, and the sources (linked to the dates) are paywalled unless otherwise noted.
Another maxim, closely related to the skunk-fight maxim and likewise strongly associated with political contexts, models the same formula. It has been variously attributed to Churchill, Twain, Shaw, et al.:
Never wrestle with a pig. You get muddy and the pig likes it.
A variant of the pig version, which is already being described as an "old adage", crops up in print as early as 1868:
...as the old adage says: "It is useless to attempt to wrestle with a hog without getting muddied."
— The Fort Scott Weekly Press (Fort Scott, Kansas) 31 Oct 1868, p. 3.
See the Quote Investigator's article, "Never Wrestle with a Pig. You Both Get Dirty and the Pig Likes It", for more complete information about the "pig" version, including variants dating from as early as 1872.
The Quote Investigator mentions another, older model of the same formula: "Don’t Wrestle with a Chimney Sweep or You Will Get Covered with Grime". Two uses of this version, the second oblique and drawing on the first, appear in print as early as 1705:
...if a Gentleman should fight with a Chimney-sweeper, he may beat the man, but he will daub himself so much, will stink of the Soot, and foul his Cloaths, that Victory is not worth the Disorder 'twill put him into.
— A true collection of the writings of the author of the true-born Englishman, Daniel Defoe, 1705, v. 2, 2nd ed., p. 186.
...'tis as Ridiculous as 'tis to talk with Houghton the Apothecary, or S—ly the Muster-Master; 'tis like Barking at a Dog, or if an Ass kicks a Man, kicking him again; 'tis like fighting with a Chimney-Sweeper, or scolding with a Fish-Woman; 'tis like any thing that is Ridiculous.
— op. cit., p. 274.
Defoe revisits this version in 1711:
Reason and Argument will no more serve against a Bully and a Slanderer, than a Paper Helmet against a Musquet Bullet...he's a Fool that will fight an Ass with his Heels, or when a Dog barks, bark at him again; Bullies are to be p—'d upon, nor Reason'd with; the Correction of a Whip, not the Satisfaction of a Gentleman, is doing justice to a Buffoon; 'tis to Box with a Chimney-sweeper, to scold with a Billinsgate....
— Defoe's review v. 8, pt.2, Dec 1711, p. 438.
Defoe's earlier use may be the source of, for example, the later use by William Adams in 1776 (published 1791 in Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson), mentioned by the Quote Investigator.
The earliest formulaic expressions of the skunk-fight version of the precept called the skunk a polecat, as in the 1770 letter shown above. The core of the precept, without the moral, shows up, for example, in an 1806 article (not paywalled):
Cheetham...has honoured me with a column and a half of his Billingsgate abuse. ... I cannot well avoid setting my foot upon him. It is true I do it with reluctance. No man would wish to meddle with a polecat; but if the dirty animal obtrudes itself into a gentleman's parlour, somebody must kick it out.
— The Weekly inspector (New-York) v. 1 27 Sep 1806, p. 36.
A much embellished variant of the polecat story features in a polemic against dueling in 1822. The moral of the story has been rather clearly drawn, but at first may seem to have been turned on its head:
St. George, the celebrated swordsman, at the time when he taught fencing...happened to be seated...next to a...coxcomb, profusely scented and perfumed, who annoyed him with many silly and impertinent questions...St. George, losing all patience, told him...he was as offensive as a polecat. The macaroni...insisted upon immediate satisfaction...to which St. George coolly replied, that he would comply with the request after the conclusion of the piece...as he saw no reason why he should deprive himself of the performance because the fellow was a nuisance...[after the performance] St. George requested a moment's parley... "It is only fair that I should apprize you...I am a maitré d'armes by profession. You will, therefore, gain very little by a contest with me; but I shall make it appear that you are pretty sure to be a loser by this affair... Nothing is more certain that you are, as I said before, as great a nuisance as a polecat. Now, if you kill me, you will not be less offensive; but if I run you through...you will be a much greater nuisance than you now are."
— Liverpool Mercury, etc. (Liverpool, Merseyside, England) 10 May 1822, p. 8.
A variant of the polecat version of the precept has been embedded in a fable by 1835. Variants of the fable, which remain fairly close to this 'original', recur in 1838 and 1868 (see below):
Once upon a time, a pole-cat challenged a Lion to single combat: The lion declined the fight. "How! (said the pole-cat) are you afraid?" — "Yes, I am," replied the lion; "for you would be sure to acquire fame by having had the honor to fight with a lion; while every one with whom I might meet, for a month to come, would readily know that I had been fighting with pole cat!"
— The Weekly Standard (Raleigh, North Carolina) 23 Jan 1835, p. 3.
A second variant of the polecat version, from 1835, concisely states the precept in a political context (context not shown):
No cleanly animal ever attacked a polecat without getting the worst of the battle, even while he slew his enemy!
— The Star and Banner (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) 15 Jun, p. 3.
Slightly later in 1835 a third, somewhat roundabout, polecat variant pokes its nose from another political burrow:
How can a decent man conduct a controversy with such a fellow? I would as soon thing of hunting a polecat, — if I caught and killed him, it would be but a polecat at last. ...but how much worse than a madman must he be, who fights or hunts a polecat! ... It is a contest in which he cannot gain and must lose.
— North State Whig (Washington, North Carolina) 01 Aug, p. 1.
In 1838 (not paywalled) the Baptists enter the fray with a variant of the fable observed in 1835 (shown above), and again in 1868 (shown after quote and following material):
Mr. Lowe seems to be very anxious to get a fight with the editor of The Baptist. But we do assure him that he cannot be gratified, for the same reason that the Lion would not fight with the Polecat. When the little neauseous animal challenged the noble beast, and bragged very much, because he would not fight him, that he had backed him out, the Lion said, — "Suppose I were to fight, and kill you; it would be no honor to me, and besides I should get so much of your odour that every on I met for a month would know I had been fighting with a Polecat."
— The Baptist v. 4 (Nasaville, Tennessee) Aug 1838, p. 234.
Come 1839, a newspaper editor provides a tangential reference to the skunk fight's unpleasant outcome:
"NEMO ME IMPUNE LACESSIT [no one attacks me with impunity] is the significant motto of the pusilanimous blackguard who edits the Memphis "Loafer." — Rather a difficult matter, we should think to insult SUCH A CRITTER, and equally dangerous as treading on the tail of a polecat.
— Marshall County Republican (Holly Springs, Mississippi) 21 Sep, p. 3.
It's not clear from the context that this 1840 reference is to the skunk-fight precept, but I found no other prominent stories mentioning polecats:
In that speech, the worthy General telling a certain pole cat story for the three hundredth time, raising his voice to the uttermost height exclaimed that *the whole Van Buren party were Rogues and scoundrels....
— The Weekly Standard (Raleigh, North Carolina) 28 Oct, p. 2.
A politician in 1842 seems willing to disregard the lesson learned from his own skunk-fighting experience:
I am not proud, and if it would afford him any satisfaction, will give him a show, but I am out of joint in fighting such animals as this since I left Kentucky, when in my wanton boyhood days I occasionally attacked a polecat and come out second best in the fight, as I think I might in this.
— Sentinel and Expositor for the Country (Vicksburg, Mississippi) 03 May, p. 2.
A 'skunk' variant of the skunk-fight version was reported as a "saying" as early as 1843:
He then went on to say that he should have bethought himself earlier of the saying that no honor could be gained in a contest with a skunk, for though the creature might be vanguished, the victor would be perfumed all over.
— Boston Post (Boston, Massachusetts) of 06 Jun, p. 1.
Later in 1843, one newspaper editor employs a combination of the 'polecat' and 'skunk' variants to take another newspaper editor to task:
Did you expect, Billy, that we would enter the arena and wage a personal warfare of words with you? Don't you suppose that we have caught skunks enough to know, that a man who fights a polecat will smell none the sweetest?
— *Fayetteville Weekly Observer (Fayetteville, North Carolina) 06 Sep, p. 2.
The 'polecat' variant of the skunk-fight version continues to appear after the 'skunk' variants crop up, although it is used less and less as use of the word 'polecat' in general diminishes and use of 'skunk' increases.
Later variants of the skunk-specific version of the formula include what might be considered an oblique reference in an 1859 political context (context not shown):
There are few people in this world who would court a contest with a skunk.
— The Racine Daily Journal (Racine, Wisconsin)
26 Nov 1859, p. 2.
In 1868 (paywalled), the proverbial skunk battle fable recurs:
A Skunk challenged a Lion to fight a duel, the Lion refused to accept; what says the skunk, "are you afraid of me?" "very much so," said the Lion, "the contest would be uneq[ual]; if I were to fight and both escape with our life, you could have it to boast the you had fought with a LION, whilst every man that I would meet for a month, would know that I had had a contest with a skunk without asking any questions. —[Sedalia (Mo.) Press.
The skunk surfaces again in a political context (context not shown) in 1873:
...as anything that is decent has all to lose and nothing to gain in a contest with a skunk, it is folly for anything that is not defiled to engage in an encounter with one. The same with human skunks.
— The Oskaloosa Independent (Oskaloosa, Kansas)
07 Jun 1873, p. 2.
In 1881 a skunk "combat" ensues, with emphasis on the lingering smell:
If Mr. Pettigrew is going to make his contest with Ordway a skunk combat, then we advise his excellency to retire instanter if he desires ever more to mingle with his fellow man, and allow Mr. Pettigrew to revel alone in his own self-selected odors.
— The Black Hills Daily Times (Deadwood, South Dakota) 12 Dec 1881, p. 2.
In 1894, a reporter sees no need to spell out the result of the contest:
We would as soon reply to the yelping of a mangy cur or engage in a contest with a skunk.
— The Journal (Logan, Utah) 21 Nov 1894, p. 1.
In 1906 a "dispute with a blackguard" is added to the skunk contest and the whole presented as a homily:
Avoid a contest with a skunk or a dispute with a blackguard. Either one of them will beat you at the game and even if you were to whip, you would get the worst of it.
— The Merchants Journal (Topeka, Kansas) 16 Jun 1906, p. 2.
The skunk contest in 1912 has an unexpected goal:
Your old Uncle Joe Cannon is just a little put out with President Taft. He declares that he has lost confidence in a man who has no more judgment than to enter into a contest with a skunk to see which can raise the biggest stink.
— The Reveille-New Era (Hill City, Kansas)
06 Jun 1912, p. 4.
Ten months later, in 1913 (paywalled), Uncle Joe's advice is well-enough known that it can be evoked without explanation (no pertinent context to omit) across the country in Hamilton, Montana:
While we recognize the wisdom of Uncle Joe Cannon's criticism of any one who enters into a contest with a skunk, still we all know that there are times when the most disagreeable duty must be performed regardless of personal feelings.
— Ravalli Republic (Hamilton, Montana)
11 Apr 1913, p. 1.
In 1926 the skunk battle has become a "squirting contest", again in a political context (context omitted):
"We won't engage in a squirting contest with a skunk," one of them remarked.
— The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) 21 Aug 1927, p. 15.
A politician, State Senator James J. Coyne, utters the unadorned kernel of skunk-fight advice in 1928:
"In other words, never enter a contest with a skunk."
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) 21 Sep 1928, p. 10.
Not being accustomed to her proximity, I don't know if Pelosi should use or avoid a variant found in 1934, no matter how couth it may be:
I will not get into a perfume contest with a skunk.
— The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) 23 Oct 1934, p. 5.
Calvin Coolidge may have made his own stab at cleaning up the skunk-wrestling scene in 1935:
As Calvin Coolidge is reported to have said: "It ain't fitten to enter a scent-sprinkling contest with a skunk."
— El Paso Herald-Post (El Paso, Texas) 20 Mar 1935, p. 2.