The Grammarphobia Blog

High on the hog

Q: During Pat’s last appearance on WNYC, she said living “high on the hog” refers to the choicest cuts of pork. I disagree. The sow has several pairs of teats starting at the chest area and continuing down the body. The teats at the top have the richest milk. The strongest piglets feed at the top, or high on the hog.

 A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but your explanation is one of several dubious “high on the hog” etymologies involving the suckling of piglets.

The most common is that the piglets who suckle on the top row of teats when the sow is lying on its side fare better, perhaps because the top row is easier to reach.

Gary Martin, writing on his Phrase Finder website, notes that this supposed etymology didn’t show up until the late 20th century, many years after “high on the hog” first appeared in print.

 (The earliest published references that we’ve been able to find linking a sow’s teats and the expression “high on the hog” are from the 1960s.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, by Christine Ammer, dates the idiomatic phrase to “live [or eat] high off [or on] the hog” to the late 19th century. (The first examples we could find were from the early 20th century.)

“It alludes to the choicest cuts of meat, which are found on a pig’s upper flanks,” Ammer writes in the American Heritage book of idioms.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “to live (also eat) high off (also (up) on) the hog” as “to live in an extravagant or luxurious style.” It describes the usage as “orig. and chiefly U.S.

The earliest citation in the OED is from the Nov. 28, 1919, issue of the Kansas City  Times: “ ‘Dese days I’se eatin’ furder up on de hog!’ ‘We’re all eating too high up on the hog,’ Mr. Clyne concluded.”

An article in the March 4, 1920, issue of the New York Times clearly indicates that the expression refers to the choice cuts of meat from a hog:

“Southern laborers who are ‘eating too high up on the hog’ (pork chops and ham) and American housewives who ‘eat too far back on the beef’ (porterhouse and round steak) are to blame for the continued high cost of living, the American Institute of Meat Packers announced today.”

Now, of course, some pricey restaurants serve such “low on the hog” delicacies as caramelized pork belly and grilled trotters.

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