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Piggyback

Q From Donna Gush: Piggyback is used so commonly that I’ve never really wondered about it until an advertisement on television here in New Zealand showed cartoon pigs standing on each other’s backs. Did the word ever actually have anything to do with pigs?

A Not originally. The pigs have sneaked in through human error.

It started out in the sixteenth century as pick pack, carrying something on the back or shoulders. Pick is a medieval version of pitch, so it meant a load that was pitched on to a person’s back for carrying. A little later, pickpack meant a ride on somebody’s shoulders.

After that, matters began to get muddled. Pack was changed into back through the obvious associations. Then it became pick-a-back. Finally, the pigs came along, in the nineteenth century, by a confusion between pick and pig, an obvious-enough change, not least because pick made no more sense to people in the word in those days than it does today. Piggy-back came along later in the century, with piggyback a modern loss of the hyphen.

We’re not sure in what country the pigs were introduced — some writers say it was in north America, others in Britain. There’s lots of evidence from English regional dialects of pig being part of the phrase by the early to middle part of the nineteenth century, which suggests it may originally have been British. Pig-a-back is known from the US no later than the 1860s but from Britain rather earlier — it appears in The Life of Beau Brummell, published in London in 1844, and in A Dialogue in the Devonshire Dialect of 1838 whose glossary explains, “Pig-a-back, said of schoolboys that ride on one another’s backs, straddling, as an Irishman would carry a pig.”

The earliest cases of piggy-back are from the US in the 1880s, though cases came along soon afterwards in Britain (the OED has a US citation dated 1843, but as this is in a comic description of a riot interrupting a wedding and refers to men actually carrying pigs, it looks like wordplay on pick-a-back). I’d guess the same processes of change were going on in both countries more or less at the same time and pace.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 27 Sep. 2008

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 27 September 2008.