putting lipstick on a pig

This rhetorical expression, “putting lipstick on a pig,” means you can dress something up but that doesn’t change its essential nature.

The phrase “lipstick on a pig” seems to have been coined in the 1900s, but the concept may be older. For example, “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear” seems to have been in use by at least the middle of the 1500s. 

Thomas Fuller, a British physician, noted the use of the phrase “A hog in armour is still but a hog” in 1732. The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796) noted that “hog in armour” alludes to “an awkward or mean-looking man or woman, finely dressed.” The Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon recorded the variation “A hog in a silk waistcoat is still a hog” in his book of proverbs The Salt-Cellars (1887).

“Lipstick” itself was only coined in 1880. The first recorded uses of “putting lipstick on a pig” don’t appear until the mid-1900s. In Stella Gibbons’ Westwood (1946), Hebe visits a hair salon and has her hair “contemptuously washed by Miss Susan, who had a face like a very young pig that had managed to get hold of a lipstick.”

In an article in the Quad-City Herald (Brewster, Washington) from 31 January 1980, it was observed that, “You can clean up a pig, put a ribbon on its tail, spray it with perfume, but it is still a pig.”

The phrase was then used in political rhetoric to criticize spin, and to insinuate that a political opponent is attempting to represent established policies as something brand new. Victoria Clarke, who was Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs under Donald Rumsfeld, published a book about spin in politics titled Lipstick on a Pig: Winning In the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game. The book argued that spin does not work in an age of transparency, when everyone will find out the truth anyway.

Ann Richards did much to boost the saying’s political popularity when she used a number of variations while governor of Texas in the early ’90s. In 1991, in her first budget-writing session, she said, “This is not another one of those deals where you put lipstick on a hog and call it a princess.” Since then, “lipstick on a pig” has spiced up much political verbiage.

I’d never heard the expression until this year, proving that I rarely watch TV or read newspapers. Now I can’t help visualizing the struggle it would take to hold a pig still and get lipstick on its mouth.

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