Schott’s Vocab has a post today linking to this OED entry (draft revision Mar. 2009):

pig’s whisper, n.
Brit. /pɩgz wɩspə/, U.S. /pɩgz (h)wɩspər/ Forms: 17- pig’s whisper, 18 pigs-whisper. [< the genitive of PIG n. + WHISPER n.]
1. A very short space of time, an instant.
1780 J. O’KEEFFE Tony Lumpkin in Town I. 4 I’ll be with them in a pig’s whisper. 1837 DICKENS Pickwick Papers xxxi. 333 You’ll find yourself in bed, in something less than a pig’s whisper. […] 1918 P. B. KYNE Valley of Giants xxv. 218 ‘Thanks so much for the invitation’, Ogilvy murmured gratefully. ‘I’ll be down in a pig’s whisper’. 1991 R. COOVER Pinocchio in Venice xxi. 229 ‘Back in a crack, direttore!’ ‘In a pig’s whisper, direttore!’
2. A whisper; a confidential tone of voice.
1846 Swell’s Night Guide 110/1 Pig’s Whisper.., a word ‘twixt you and me. 1866 M. BANIM Peter of Castle 5 The eulogist may.. in what they call a pig’s whisper (that is, in a confidential tone).. [relate] a few anecdotes of his prowess. 1922 J. JOYCE Ulysses II. 484 Virag (Prompts into his ear in a pig’s whisper). 2001 Hindu (Nexis) 21 Jan., I heard Ata informing Mummy, in a pig’s whisper, that plagiarism, too, was actionable.

I had not been familiar with this wonderful phrase; are you? (Thanks, Bonnie!)


  1. His breakfast, yes; his whisper, no.

  2. His ear, yes; his whisper, ditto; no.

  3. I’d never heard of that phrase. But it reminded me of “In a pig’s eye”, spoken by Dr. McCoy in the Star Trek episode “Amok Time”.
    McCoy: You can’t tell me that when you first saw Jim alive, that you weren’t on the verge of giving us an emotional scene that would have brought the house down!
    Spock: Merely my quite logical relief that Starfleet had not lost a highly proficient captain.
    Kirk: Yes, Mr. Spock, I understand.
    Spock: Thank you, Captain.
    McCoy: Of course, Mr. Spock, your reaction was quite logical.
    Spock: Thank you, Doctor.
    McCoy: In a pig’s eye!
    I googled “in a pig’s eye” and got over 22,000 hits, including the name of a restaurant in Salem, Massachusetts. But I’ve never heard that phrase used outside of that episode, either.
    Another web site says Pig’s Eye was the original name of St. Paul, Minnesota

  4. marie-lucie says

    I am not sure what McCoy’s means by “in a pig’s eye” here.

  5. marie-lucie says

    Sorry, “McCoy”.

  6. He means “nonsense!” It’s a reasonably common phrase, or at any rate used to be (*strokes graying beard*); I have long been familiar with it (and have occasionally said it), but not the breakfast or ear.

  7. marie-lucie says

    Thanks, LH. I do know “pig’s breakfast” and I suppose “pig’s ear” comes from “sow’s ear” (an unlikely source of “purses”).

  8. It’s a reasonably common phrase, or at any rate used to be
    Copy that. <* strokes greying stubble *>
    I distinguish between “dog’s breakfast”, “dog’s dinner” and “pig’s breakfast”. What they have in common is that they fail to appeal to humans. But the pig in question is in a sty, whereas the questionable dog is a stray. So a “pig’s breakfast” is just unpalatably presented: slops. A “dog’s dinner” is strictly speaking nonexistent, because the garbage has been carted off during the day, or was scarfed up for breakfast by the dog and his fellows. A “dog’s breakfast” is eclectic and nomadic: a bit of this, then a bit of that, whatever turns up when the can turns over. Exceptionally, there is a bourgeois “dog’s dinner” for Lassies: liver and lights, tastefully arranged in a stainless steel bowl.

  9. “Dog’s dinner” I’ve heard only in the phrase “done up like a dog’s dinner”, which means dressed up in a fancy but probably also ridiculous way.

  10. The barely perceptible “pig’s whisper” reminds me of “at sparrow-fart”, meaning in the very early hours of the morning.

  11. A lot of times when investigated these kind of idioms ultimately stem from 16 century Shakespearean English.
    “pig’s ear” is also rhyming slang for “beer” although it’s probably more ‘Mockney’ than true Cockney thesedays?
    “in a pig’s eye” I’ve never heard the term (apart from Star Trek) or used it either but curiously you instantly know what it means.

  12. marie-lucie says

    Perhaps I confused “a pig’s breakfast” with “a dog’s breakfast” (rather than “dinner”), as in “she was got up like a dog’s breakfast”, meaning wearing ill-fitting, poorly matched, probably rumpled clothes.

  13. There’s also “in a pig’s valise,” which we associate with Raymond Chandler via Eric Overmyer, but apparently it’s legitimate.

  14. “We use all of the pig but the squeal.”

  15. Does anybody ever have anything good to say about pigs idiom-wise?
    Surely there must be some positive porcine-based idioms?

  16. “Happy as a pig in ___.”

  17. “Clover” – I’m sure you mean?!

  18. Copy that. <* strokes greying stubble *>
    Same here. <* strokes completely grey beard *>

  19. Oh, it cut off the grey-beard-stroking part of my comment because I had it in angle brackets. Stu, what did you do?

  20. empty, let me explain, in an extended metaphor, how this business of “special characters” works. hat has already several times given examples of how to do angle brackets, but he didn’t explain the principles in a wild and wooly way.
    Your browser and hat’s website don’t work like fax machines. The comment box is not a piece of paper where you type in whatever you want, and the browser then faxes your text to hat’s website, where it is reproduced and sent back just as you typed it. It makes more sense to compare the website to an automated Farm Animal Shelter, and the browsers to web cams for concerned citizens who have dropped off sheep at the shelter. They can check up on the welfare of the animals through the web cams, and expect to see happy sheep feeding on clover.
    The Farm Animal Shelter, however, was established by a company of wolves, and the automation was set up by them. The automated system for classifying the sheep, assigning tracking numbers for the slaughter-lines depending on size and race, and so on, is all in Wolfish. Wolfish tags are bite-marks, and the tracking numbers are stamped in wolf blood. The shelter directors of course want harmless-looking sheep, and are not at all interested in stray wolves, or anything that looks as if some wolf has already had a go at it.
    These Wolfish classification artefacts are not things the directors want concerned citizens to see when they peer through their web cams. So the directors filter our classification artefacts from what goes over the web cams to the browsers. Yet there is still a potential problem with the donated animals. Sometimes sheep arrive that seem to have been mauled by wolves – they have bite-marks on them, or bloody patches on the wool that look very much like slaughter-line numbers. The shelter workers have not yet registered these sheep, but they seem to have been already registered. This is a problem, because it is on the basis of these records that the automation knows what to filter out of the web cam views.
    So the shelter has a 24-hour drop-off site with a Wolfish detector. The drop-off is like a cat flap, but this time for sheep. Behind the sheep-flap is a scanning system to detect incoming irregularities – exactly those things that look like real classification marks. When the scanner detects such things on a sheep, a wolf robot does cosmetic surgery. It shears off the bloody patches, and glues on a piece of leftover wool. It also glues a piece of wool over bite-marks.
    In your last post, empty, you donated a sheep that had something about it that the shelter scanning system interpreted as a classification mark, and removed. So your web cam shows the sheep you sent, but not exactly as you sent it.
    Now back to technical reality. What I have been referring to as classification marks are usually called “formatting tags”. They classify the text which appears between them in the flow of characters. They tell the browser how to present text, and are themselves not intended to be presented (“seen through the web cam”). The browser is automated, being programmed to interpret certain characters as “formatting commands” and act accordingly.
    In the metaphor, I pretended as if it were hat’s website that filtered things out, but it’s usually your own browser that does that – so the browser itself is the Farm Animal Shelter. There are simply certain characters which you can’t use right off the bat – for instance when you want to display formatting tags, such as angle brackets, as part of your text, and do not want your browser to interpret them as formatting commands. This is the case when you want to do a meta-thing like describe the formatting process itself. Another example is when you want to use the angle brackets to signal “this is an actor’s directive”, not to change the formatting.
    So, to get a text past your brower that looks like a wolf, and is intended to look like one ultimately, you first have to put it in sheep’s clothing. This is called “escaping the text”. To get a “<” out of the browser, you have to hide it behind the characters “& g t ;” typed without the intervening spaces. Here, using space characters, I am doing a meta-meta-thing: sheeping the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

  21. Oops. “& g t ;” should be “& l t ;” (the “lt” stands for “less than”).

  22. In the example of using “& l t ;” to get “<“, I had to use space characters to spell out the sequence of characters that the browser would otherwise interpret as a command to show a “<“. This resembles the situation in which an adult, in the presence of a child, wants to say something to another adult without the child understanding what he says. He spells out the word, instead of saying it. Browsers are like children – you can slip many things past them, but you have to have some familiarity with the child, who may be older and wiser than you thought.

  23. There are other ways to sheep the sequence of letters to get “&lt;” as a result, shown without using spaces. But to show you here what I really typed to get this result, I again have to use a space (or some other “harmless” character), for instance after the first ampersand:
    & amp;lt;
    What I actually typed was “&amp;lt;” – but to show you here what I really had to type in order to get that last result displayed as “&amp;lt;”, I again have to use a space somewhere:
    & amp;amp;lt;
    This can get very confusing very quickly. Since these things are based on conventions that programs use, the easiest thing to do when you want to do a meta-meta-thing like I just did, is to use a editor program. I used Microsoft Front Page, because there’s no way I’m going to wrap my precious little fee-charged-by-the-hour head around the details for doing it manually by gray cell. In one tab (page) you enter the text exactly as you want it to appear. A second tab (page) shows you what the tagged stuff (HTML) is that will produce that text (your text will have been “escaped”, or “sheeped”, where necessary). On a third tab (page) you see what the whole will ultimately look like in a browser (you may have inserted a picture link in your original text).
    For the simple stuff like angle brackets, you can just note down somewhere that you have to type “&lt;” for “<“, and “&gt;” for “>”. Otherwise, get an editor program that will convert this stuff for you. There are zillions of such programs.

  24. “Does anybody ever have anything good to say about pigs idiom-wise?”
    There’s “pigs is equals”, unless you think that that’s not really good.

  25. I have hattically fixed Ø’s comment.

  26. I figured it was something like that, but I was guessing pigs rather than sheep.
    We can attribute part of the difficulty to the similarity between this beard-stroking stuff and “not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin”. This was bound to get the wolves stirred up.

  27. I have hattically fixed Ø’s comment
    Thus pulling the motivation rug away from under my explanations. To restore order and sense, all comments referring to empty’s defective comment (now fixed) should be deleted, including empty’s complaint about the defect, my subsequent explanations, the “I have hattically fixed …” comment and all intervening ones up to and including this one. That would be the Men in Black solution – remember the trouble that ensued when one of them omitted to apply it.

  28. Hat, don’t listen to him <* sips coffee *>. You see, I’m learning. That’s the last time I’ll try to fax a sheep to a slaughterhouse in Farm Animal Shelter’s clothing. You know what I mean: it’s not the sheep who’s wearing the … Not me, either. It’s the shelter. Oh, never mind.
    Stu’s explanation must be preserved. It’s a treasure. <* rolls eyes *>.

  29. marie-lucie says

    Un morceau de bravoure!

  30. <* blushes prettily *>

  31. What an act to follow!
    I too have not heard of ‘a pig’s whisper’, but ‘whithin a (pig’s) whisker’ means ‘a very short distance’.
    Also, I had heard ‘in a pig’s eye!’ before Doc McCoy said it.

  32. Isn’t “by a cat’s whisker” more common ? I can’t remember hearing “within/by a pig’s whisker”.

  33. Do pigs have whiskers?

  34. Do cats eat bats?

  35. You may well be right about the cat, Grumbly. Memory and recall show more and more signs of not being what they used to be.
    I thought I remembered whiskers from my only encounter with a wallowfull of sows and boar, AJP, but maybe it was just stubble (the famous hairs of a chinny-chin-chin).

  36. Just found a picture of dangerous flying pig’s whiskers.

  37. Viel Geschrei und wenig Wolle, said the farmer; he sheared his pig.

  38. Winston Churchill says

    A dog looks up to you, a cat looks down on you, but a pig will look you straight in the eye.

  39. It’s the shelter.
    Of course I meant to say “it’s the slaughterhouse”.
    I also wanted to ask whether this has anything to do with “Charlotte’s W*bcam”.
    (That word is being rejected by the Wolf Police as questionable content.)

  40. The simple “by a whisker” sounds familiar to me.

  41. Charlotte’s Webc*m … (That word is being rejected by the Wolf Police as questionable content.)
    The Wuff Police, more like. I slipped “web cam” past them by the simple expedient of spelling it out with a space.

  42. rootlesscosmo says

    I heard “in a pig’s ass” (to convey strong skepticism–“nonsense” or “bullshit”) from fellow-railroaders long ago and assumed “pig’s eye” and “pig’s valise” to be euphemisms.

  43. In the context of MMcM’s quote from Chandler, I thought “in a pig’s valise !” might mean “I will not be suede from my course”. But it’s more plausible that it is a euphemism for “in a pig’s ass”.

  44. Cassell agrees and gives an amazing variety of variants.

  45. Another web site says Pig’s Eye was the original name of St. Paul, Minnesota
    Indeed it was, or more accurately “Pig’s Eye Landing” [annoying sounds warning]. As it turns out, the moniker still has a small but loyal following among those who maintain that, considering the city’s eclectic combination of Lutherans, born-again pagans, Reformed Druids of North America, and Recovering Methodists, the later papist name is less appropriate than the original.

  46. OT, I came across this this intriguing vignette told by Elif Shafak; it seems to fit the now closed Fodder for Allusions thread:

    Now one other thing happened around this same time. My mother became a diplomat. So from this small, superstitious, middle-class neighborhood of my grandmother, I was zoomed into this posh, international school [in Madrid], where I was the only Turk. It was here that I had my first encounter with what I call the “representative foreigner.” In our classroom, there were children from all nationalities. Yet, this diversity did not necessarily lead to a cosmopolitan, egalitarian classroom democracy. Instead, it generated an atmosphere in which each child was seen, not as an individual on his own, but as the representative of something larger. We were like a miniature United Nations, which was fun, except whenever something negative with regards to a nation or a religion took place. The child who represented it was mocked, ridiculed and bullied endlessly. And I should know, because during the time that I attended that school, a military takeover happened in my country, a gunman of my nationality nearly killed the Pope, and Turkey got zero points in the Eurovision Song Contest. (Laughter)

    So what is the answer to this, besides “STFU [insert favorite adjective for icky person]”? There seems to be no graceful answer, either if you find your “tribe(s)” being stereotyped or if you encounter someone of a particular group acting in a way that reinforces unfortunate stereotypes. Both experiences have to be fairly common.

  47. Semantically related, though unidentical, to the dog’s breakfast, is the curate’s egg—derived from the famous old cartoon.

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