The Origin of the Phrase ‘When Pigs Fly

Have you ever wondered where the phrase “when pigs fly” comes from? It’s a quirky expression that we often use when we want to express the sheer impossibility of something happening. But have you ever stopped to think about how exactly it came to be? In this article, we’ll take a brief look at the fascinating origin story behind the phrase “when pigs fly” and discover how it has become such a popular and lighthearted way to convey our skepticism. So, buckle up and get ready to explore the unexpected journey that led to the creation of this humorous idiom!

The Origin of the Phrase ‘When Pigs Fly’

Ancient Greek and Roman References

The origins of the popular phrase “When pigs fly” can be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman references. In these ancient cultures, pigs were considered to be symbols of abundance, fertility, and good fortune. However, the notion of pigs actually flying was seen as an absurd and impossible concept. The idea of flying pigs was used metaphorically to express disbelief or to dismiss the likelihood of something ever happening. This usage of the phrase has carried through the centuries and has become a common idiom in several modern languages.

Medieval European Folklore

During the Middle Ages, European folklore incorporated the image of flying pigs into stories and legends. These tales often portrayed pigs as mischievous and unpredictable creatures capable of extraordinary feats, such as soaring through the sky. However, the portrayal of flying pigs in medieval folklore was meant to be whimsical and fantastical, emphasizing the impossibility of such an occurrence in reality. This further reinforced the notion of pigs flying as something that could never truly happen.

Variations in Other Languages

The phrase “When pigs fly” has been adapted and translated in numerous languages, each with its own unique cultural twist. For example, in Spanish, the equivalent phrase is “Cuando las ranas críen pelo,” which translates to “When frogs grow hair.” Similarly, in French, the phrase becomes “Quand les poules auront des dents,” meaning “When chickens have teeth.” The underlying meaning of these variations remains the same – expressing doubt or skepticism about the likelihood of something happening.

Influence of the Gutenberg Press

The invention of the Gutenberg Press in the 15th century played a significant role in the spread of the phrase “When pigs fly.” With the widespread availability of printed books, proverbs and idiomatic expressions began to circulate more widely. The phrase was included in collections of popular sayings and became a well-known expression throughout Europe. The accessibility and dissemination of printed materials helped firmly establish the phrase in the vernacular of different regions, ensuring its longevity.

The Phrase in Shakespeare’s Works

The works of William Shakespeare also contributed to the popularity of the phrase “When pigs fly.” Shakespeare was known for his use of humor and wit, often incorporating popular idioms into his plays. In “Twelfth Night,” one of his most renowned comedies, the character Malvolio exclaims, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” to which another character replies, “When thou art king, let not us that are squires of the night’s body be called thieves of the day’s beauty. Let us be Diana’s Foresters, Gentlemen of the Shade, Minions of the Moon. When the moon shone, we did not see flights flying between the cold moon and the earth.” This example showcases Shakespeare’s playful use of the flying pig imagery to convey an absurd and unlikely scenario.

Nautical Origins

The maritime world also has its own contribution to the origin of the phrase. Some believe that the phrase “When pigs fly” originates from sailors’ superstitions and folklore. According to one nautical legend, sailors would use the phrase as a way to dismiss any possibility of dangerous or unforeseen events at sea. Flying pigs were seen as a sign of impending disaster, and thus, if someone mentioned this absurd scenario, it was thought to ward off any potential harm. While the direct connection to the maritime origin remains speculative, it is plausible that tales from the sea influenced the popularization of the phrase.

Aviation and Piggybanks

In the 20th century, the advent of aviation gave rise to a new interpretation of the phrase “When pigs fly.” As airplanes became more prevalent, the notion of actual pigs taking flight became even more far-fetched and implausible. This new association with aviation further emphasized the idea of impossibility and incredulity. Additionally, the phrase also gained a playful connotation thanks to the popular piggybanks, which were often shaped like pigs and used to collect spare change. The combination of flying and pigs in the context of aviation created a whimsical image that continues to be associated with the phrase today.

The Modern Usage

In contemporary times, the phrase “When pigs fly” is widely used in everyday conversation. It is employed as a lighthearted way to express extreme improbability or disbelief about a particular situation or outcome. Whether used in humorous banter between friends or as a means of dismissing an unrealistic proposal, the phrase maintains its friendly and jovial tone, making it a versatile expression that can be adapted to various contexts.

Pig-Flying Contests

Taking inspiration from the whimsical nature of the phrase, pig-flying contests have emerged over the years as unique and entertaining spectacles. These events involve strapping wings or harnesses onto pigs and launching them from elevated platforms. While the pigs do not actually fly in the literal sense, the spectacle attracts crowds of spectators who come for the playful absurdity and enjoy the spectacle for its sheer entertainment value. Pig-flying contests have become popular attractions at fairs, festivals, and special events, providing a whimsical twist on the otherwise impossible concept.

When Pigs Fly in Popular Culture

The phrase “When pigs fly” has also made its way into popular culture through various mediums. It is frequently used in books, movies, television shows, and advertising campaigns to convey humor and heighten dramatic effect. The phrase often serves as a punchline or as a way to emphasize the ludicrousness of a situation. The whimsical image of flying pigs continues to capture the imagination of people and remains a memorable and instantly recognizable symbol of the improbable.

In conclusion, the origins of the phrase “When pigs fly” can be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman references and medieval European folklore. The influence of the Gutenberg Press and the works of Shakespeare helped to popularize the phrase further. Nautical folklore and the rise of aviation added new dimensions to its meaning, while pig-flying contests and its incorporation into popular culture have solidified its place in our vernacular. Today, the phrase continues to serve as a lighthearted expression of disbelief and remains a charming and enduring part of our language.


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