Living “high on the hog” means enjoying affluence and luxury.
One might assume that this phrase originated hundreds of years ago. It’s easy to picture nobility dining on roasted suckling pig or boar, while the peasants made do with pig’s feet. However, the phrase is not found in print until the 1900s in the US.
The word “high,” however, has been used in Britain since the 1600s and in the US since the 1800s, and means impressive, exalted, superlative. Used this way, the word alluded to people’s status, as is seen in the terms “high-life” (1700s), “high-table” (1400s) and even “high-heaven” (800s). The entry in Samuel Pepys Diary for July 29, 1667 includes, “Where it seems people do drink high.”
One theory for the source of this phrase is that the best cuts of meat on a pig come from the back and upper legs and that the wealthy ate the expensive cuts from “high on the hog,” while the peasants ate belly pork and feet, from “low on the hog.”
This theory is supported by this quote from the New York Times, March 1920:
“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.”
Another theory is that piglets who get suckled from the top row of teats of the prone mother sow tend to fare better. But this explanation is not found until the late 1900s, so it is probably just someone having fun making up a plausible story made up to fit the phrase.
“High on the hog” is, perhaps, popular partly because of the alliteration. Also, the word “hog” also means greedy and there may be a connection there. However, “eating too far back on the beef” has nothing going for it.
The popularity of “high on the hog” is obvious: it’s been used as titles for a movie, a band, and a good many enterprises to do with food.
Thank you and a hat tip to The Phrase Finder (https://www.phrases.org.uk).
Speaking of “high on the hog,” has anybody out there eaten head cheese? Couldn’t get any higher than that!