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shameless pleading





Hog on ice

Slip-sliding away.

Hog on chair

Dear Word Detective:  I was just trying to find the origin of the phrase “Individual as a hog on ice,” and your website popped up.  I don’t see it there, so I was just wondering if you could find the answer and post it.  Thanks a billion! — Whitney.

Well, I’ll give it a shot, I guess.  This afternoon, probably, tomorrow at the latest.  You do realize that “a billion” isn’t what it used to be, right?  Definitely an also-ran in the motivational sweepstakes.  Even “a trillion” doesn’t take your breath away the way it once did.  The good news about all this conceptual inflation is that the average person may soon be able to truly grasp the concept of infinity. The bad news is that we’re gonna be pondering it while living under a bridge.

But hey, be here now, as my boss used to say.  I actually tackled a question about “hog on ice” about ten years ago with only middling success, and things haven’t gotten any clearer since then.  But it’s not just me — etymologists have been searching for an explanation of the phrase pretty much since it first appeared back in the mid-19th century. In fact, back in 1948 etymologist Charles Earle Funk titled his first book of word origins “A Hog on Ice,” and his foreword to that book contains a seven page narrative of his quest, ultimately inconclusive, for the roots of the phrase.

One of the possibilities that Funk explored was that the “hog” in “hog on ice” doesn’t actually refer to a pig, but to a stone used in the ancient game of curling, which involves sliding large flat stones across ice.  A “hog” in curling is a stone that has failed to travel the required distance and sits immobile in the way of further play.  But while this is an interesting convergence of “hog” and “ice,” it’s unlikely to be the source of a phrase so widely known today in both the US and the UK.

It’s more likely that “as independent as a hog on ice” simply refers to an actual hog that has escaped and somehow managed to wind up in the middle of a frozen pond or stream.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase as “denoting independence, awkwardness, or insecurity,” and I think all three qualities perfectly fit the predicament of a hog at such a moment.  While he’s technically free, his trotters can get no traction on the ice, making real escape impossible, and he’s more than likely to end up splayed helplessly on his belly, easily recaptured and returned to his pen.  This sense of “you’re free, but it’s not doing you any good” seems to be an important aspect of “independent as a hog on ice” in common usage (“They like to think of themselves as independents … independent as a hog on ice,” Time magazine, 1948).

17 comments to Hog on ice

  • […] the words. Picture, for example, “as independent as a hog on ice.” According to Evan Morris, The Word Detective,  this lovely phrase expresses the hog’s predicament perfectly. “While he’s technically […]

  • and

    “He’s independent as a hog on ice” also appears on page 266 (chapter seventeen) of the novel “A Thief of Time” by Tony Hillerman. The quote is used to refer Dr Randall Elliot, a very peculiar (scientist) character of this novel.

  • Neil Hand

    I stumbled across the expression for the second time (the first being in a Tom Waits song) in Part One, Chapter Two of Robertson Davies’ The Lyre of Orpheus. Wondered if Waits had picked the expression up from this book: “Independent as a hog on ice, he thought, in one of the Old Loyalist Ontario expressions which popped up, unbidden, in his mind when least expected.” Maybe Davies reckons he knows the origin, or maybe he’s inferring that the character in question, Simon Darcourt, thinks he does.

    • Minneapolis

      I don’t know when Tom Waits wrote CEMETERY POLKA but Edward Abbey used the term in 1972 in his book ABBEY’S ROAD:
      “Connie strikes me as being every bit as shrewd, tough, and independent as the boss himself. Independent as a hog on ice. The sparks must fly when these two cross each other. I tried to imagine Gloria Steinem explaining women’s rights to Connie Nunn. Connie would laugh her all the way to Adelaide. Connie was born liberated.”

  • Beth

    I only heard this phrase y-day. Thought maybe it was a reference to cold ham… :-)

  • michael loren

    I had a patient use this expression.. her father used it to describe his daughter as very independent, with a mind of her own. The likely simple meaning.

    I have a friend who recently took up curling and she mentioned there is a “hog” line on the ice. I think the stone needs to get past this line to be a valid stone. This expression may have some meaning to an experienced curler.

  • Dan McCurdy

    It seems to me that while ‘a hog on ice’ may imply freedom with no ability to negotiate direction, is a smile-provoking little oxymoron, the more apparent word-picture invoked is that of sheer ‘no progress’ absurdity. Rather than over-thinking the obvious in order to draw an oxymoronic debating point, the faux intellectuals have sentenced themselves to the hog’s dilemma.

  • Richard Hultquist

    I have always heard it used as meaning a hog is helpless on ice.
    See “INDEPENDENT AS A HOG ON ICE & Other Curious Expressions

  • Deke Thomas

    Robert Ansoin Heinlein used the phrse in “Lost Legacy”, a novella first published in the late 1940s, but I get the sense thar RAH is using it to mean that the hog is extremely independent; you obviously aren’t going to herd it with a section of fence, as you could with swine on dirt or concrete. He writes:

    “Thanks, darling,” the doctor answered, “but I’d much rather hear about the Mad Scientist and his Trilby.”
    “Trilby, hell,” Huxley protested, “She’s as independent as a hog on ice. However, we’ve got something to show you this time, Doc.”

  • Laura

    My grandmother (b. 1891) used this expression and it was understood to mean, independent to one’s own detriment.

    • Anonymous

      You are correct Laura. I have heard this expression all my life and it always described a person who would not accept help no matter how much they needed it and usually resented the offer. It described my grandmother to a T

    • ron

      Laura. Absolutely correct. A hog on ice cannot stand once it has fallen. May not be able to move off the ice at all. But it will fight any attempt to help it. Your grandmother gave the proper meaning as was commonly understood prior to the middle of the last century. And the saying is “Independent as a hog on ice”.

  • Clay Commons

    John Gould of Maine opined that the expression referred to the sublime peace exhibited by a butchered hog lying on a slab of ice – free from all the worries of the world. I have only his word for it.

  • James Stewart

    The phrase comes to light courtesy of Carl Sandburg, who uses the expression to describe the city of Chicago. I have had occasion to ask some rural people with experience with hogs and they are divided. About half say that a hog cannot walk easily of ice. The other half insist that a hog has no trouble walking on ice. So, take your pick. If the expression is to be consistent with other things that Sandburg said about Chicago it would suggest a large animal walking forward despite slipping and sliding while receiving no help from outside.

  • Mary Clark

    My family has used this expression for years. Just a week ago someone finally asked what the source was. I really didn’t know! I have always thought it meant exactly that: a hog skittering around on ice unable to help himself and woe betide anyone trying to help him.
    Hmmmm….now I have to research “woe betide”….

  • Chris

    I encountered the phrase a little differently. It was used in The Whisper of the River, by Farrol Sams. The character said he was, “serious as a hog on ice”. I think this makes more sense in the context of a trapped or scared hog.

  • CB

    There is a fantastic image of a hog on ice by Maine phototgrapher Kosti Ruohomaa. It’s here:

    I encountered it in a fantastic book called “Night Train at Wiscasset Station.” The book includes photos of daily life in rural / coastal Maine in the early 1900s.

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