The Grammarphobia Blog

Swine language

Q: I hope you can answer this: what is the origin of “pig” as a derogatory word for a policeman? My guess is it comes from the ’60s antiwar protests in the US.

A: Although the word “pig” was heard a lot during the American student protests of the ’60s and ’70s, the usage originated in Britain a century and a half before the first chant of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh.”

The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary for this use of “pig” is from Francis Grose’s Lexicon Balatronicum (1811), a slang dictionary that defines “pig” this way:

“A police officer. A China street pig; a Bow-street officer. Floor the pig and bolt; knock down the officer and run away.” (We’ve gone to the original to expand the OED citation.)

The expression “China Street pig” was a slang term for a Bow Street police officer, a member of London’s first professional police force. The police were attached to the Bow Street magistrates’ office in London.

As you can imagine, the word “pig” in its porcine sense is very old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days. The OED says that when the term first showed up in Old English, this is what it meant:

“An omnivorous, domesticated even-toed ungulate derived from the wild boar Sus scrofa, with a stout body, sparse bristly hair, and a broad flat snout for rooting in the soil, kept as a source of bacon, ham, pork, etc.”

So how did a word for an even-toed ungulate come to be a mocking term for a police officer?

Well, two and a half centuries before it was first used to bad-mouth a cop, “pig” took on a more general negative sense: someone or something considered unattractive, unpleasant, or greedy.

(Speaking of “cop,” we wrote a blog item several years ago on its etymology.)

The OED’s first citation for the pejorative use of “pig” is from a 1546 book of proverbs about marriage: “What, bid me welcome, pig? I pray thee kiss me! Nay, farewell, sow!” (We’ve used an expanded citation from the Internet Archive.)

By the early 1800s, a Bow Street runner (another derogatory term for a police officer in London) was being called a China Street pig or, simply, a pig.

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