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shameless pleading

Thick as thieves / Pearls before swine

So … never turn your back on Miss Piggy?

Dear Word Detective: I’m curious as to the origins of the phrases “Thick as thieves” and “Pearls before swine.” I believe that the second has its origins in France during the revolution, but that is more of a possible factoid. — Milton Valenzuela.

That’s two good questions, and you get bonus points for using “factoid” in a sense close to that which Norman Mailer (who invented the word in 1973 in his book “Marilyn”) intended, to wit: “… facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper ….” The pseudo-newspaper USA Today (motto: “Television you can wrap fish in”) went on to use “factoid” to mean “short news item” (“Four out of ten Americans can’t add four and ten!”). But “factoid” really means “something that many people believe to be true but probably isn’t.”

In the case of “pearls before swine,” we can change that “probably isn’t” to a “definitely isn’t.” The phrase preceded the French Revolution by quite a bit. Incidentally, does anyone else remember a group called Pearls Before Swine, a US psychedelic band back in the late 1960s? I used to hear them on the old WNEW-FM, the flagship of free-form FM radio in New York City. Scott Muni, Rosko, and Alison Steele, the Night Bird! Those were the days.

Anyway, “to cast pearls before swine,” the full form of the phrase, means to give or offer something of great value to a person who is incapable of appreciating it (“The peasant hereabouts is past belief low and animal, and a sensitive, intellectual parson among them is really a pearl before swine,” 1898). It always struck me as a dicey name for a band, implying to the literal-minded, as it does, that one’s music is “pearls” and one’s audience are “swine.” But I’m in good company in my skeptical reaction to the phrase; Carl Sandburg, for instance, pointed out that “Those in fear they may cast pearls before swine are often lacking in pearls” (“The people, yes,” 1936).

The first use in print of “pearls before swine” in English was, as far as we know, in William Langland’s epic poem “Piers Plowman” around 1400 (which also gave us the word “ragamuffin,” from Langland’s character “Ragamoffyn,” a demon). But the phrase itself is biblical in origin, from the Gospel of Matthew, recounting the admonition of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount to “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”

“Thick as thieves” is a bit more recent than “pearls before swine,” first appearing in print in the early 19th century (“She and my wife are as thick as thieves, as the proverb goes,” 1833), although it was certainly in oral use long before that (thus the reference to “proverb” in that citation). The original form of the idiom was “thick as two thieves,” “thick” in this case meaning “close, sharing confidences, intimate and familiar by association,” as two criminals working together would be forced to conspire and operate in isolation from normal social life. This “thick” is found in several other phrases meaning “very close, intimate” that were common during the 19th century (“as thick as glue,” “as peas in a shell,” “as thick as three in a bed,” et al.). All of these phrases involve a figurative use of “thick” in the sense of “closely packed, crowded” also found in such phrases as “thick on the ground,” meaning “very numerous; common” (“I see you’re some kind of general. They’re pretty thick on the ground here,” 1919).

4 comments to Thick as thieves / Pearls before swine

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