This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies. See our privacy statement
World Wide Words logo

Pigs might fly

Q From Tom Young: Do you know where the phrase when pigs fly came from?

A There are lots of variations on sayings associated with the idea of pigs flying, as an example of something obviously nonsensical or of some event that is extremely unlikely to occur. “Things might improve if the other party gets elected,” one person might say. “And pigs might fly,” comes the sarcastic rejoinder. My own favourite way of enlivening meetings was to wait until somebody produced a choice bit of wishful thinking disguised as a strategy proposal and then point out of the window in a surprised sort of way. “Oh, look,” I would say, “there’s a pig flying by!”. (As Dilbert once said, I’m not anti-management, I’m just anti-idiot.)

Let us return to our muttons, or rather our porks. We have to go back a long way to find the original of this idea. It seems to have been a traditional Scottish proverb, which was first written down in 1586 in an edition of John Withal’s English-Latin dictionary for children. This had an appendix of proverbs rendered into Latin, of which one was the usual form of the proverb in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: “pigs fly in the air with their tails forward”. If they did indeed fly, the proverb argues, flying backwards would seem a small extra feat.

Another version is more famous, because it appears in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: “I’ve a right to think,” said Alice sharply... “Just about as much right,” said the Duchess, “as pigs have to fly.” Other forms that have appeared at various times include and pigs could fly if they had wings, and pigs may fly, but they are very unlikely birds.

Page created 6 Apr. 2002

Support World Wide Words.

Donate by selecting your currency and clicking the button.


Buy anything from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you.

Buy from Amazon UK Buy from Amazon USA

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved. See the copyright page for notes about linking to and reusing this page. For help in viewing the site, see the technical FAQ. Your comments, corrections and suggestions are always welcome.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-pig1.htm
Last modified: 6 April 2002.