Q From Margaret Lethbridge-Cejku: I came across this recently in a mystery novel set in Bath, Something in the Blood by Jean Goodhind: “She knew he was brooding. He’d lost the clock and he was pig sick about it.” I gather the character was near prostrate in his disappointment, but pig sick? Is this a common expression? When I encounter sick as a dog, I envision vomiting copiously. But pigs? Are they prone to histrionics? The context leads me to think that it’s an over-the-top but deeply felt heartache. Can you enlighten this Yankee reader?
A The sense is as you describe it. The slang term pig sick refers not to a real physical sickness or illness but to an acute state of mind — annoyed, saddened, displeased, discontented or indignant about something:
If you are pig sick of the Kardashian clan, an app called KardBlock cuts them out of your digital life.
The Sun, 5 May 2015.
We’re pig sick of this political correctness
Daily Mirror headline, 25 Jan. 2015.
Sick by itself can have much the same idea of a feeling of affliction or mental unhappiness that’s powerful enough to mimic a physical ailment. It’s been used in English for about a thousand years and we have several phrases that include it, such as sick at heart (and heartsick) and the old-fashioned sick with love. A person might say “it makes me sick”, “I’m sick of it” or more fully “I’m sick and tired of it” when referring to some situation that seriously irritates. To express sadness or disappointment we have down the years been metaphorically as sick as horses, dogs, and even parrots.
The pig in the expression isn’t a real animal either. Like dog, pig has long been used as what linguists call an intensifier, adding strength to an expression. Somebody may be pig-ignorant, for example. To be pig sick then is to have some adverse emotion in especially high measure.
The term is mostly found in Britain and Commonwealth countries and looks from the dating evidence to be a coinage of the Second World War. This is the earliest I’ve so far found, a letter to a British newspaper from a resident who is displeased by wartime regulations:
If a jay-walker is knocked down, blame the motorist; if he accidentally bumps the kerb he is driving dangerously; if his lights are too bright or too dim, he is a danger on the road; if his car is not smothered in white paint he commits an offence; if he drives over 30 m.p.h. he is a menace; if he drives under 30 m.p.h. he is impeding traffic. All these petty items are making the motorist just pig-sick.
Hartlepool Mail, 16 Jan. 1942.
There may be a literal source for the expression. At one time, land was said by farmers and vets to be pig sick if the animals were allowed to run on it for an extended period so that parasites built up in the soil, stopping the pigs thriving and sometimes killing them. It’s possible that early users of the expression had this agricultural usage in mind.