‘please the pigs’: meaning and early occurrences



The phrase please the pigs means if circumstances permit, if all is well.

This phrase occurs, for example, in Finnegans Wake (London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1939), by the Irish author James Joyce (1882-1941):

Things will begin to clear up a bit one way or another within the next quarrel of an hour and be hanged to them as ten to one they will too, please the pigs, as they ought to categorically, as, stricly between ourselves, there is a limit to all things so this will never do.




The earliest occurrences of the phrase please the pigs that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From A Murnival of Knaves: Or, Whiggism Plainly Display’d, and (If not grown shameless) Burlesqu’t out of Countenance (London: Printed for James Norris, 1683), by John Norris (1657-1711), Church of England clergyman and philosopher:

He must resigne
His better share in Caroline;
Nay he shall be, and’t please the Pigs
The Anti-Yorkist of the Whigs,
Or else be Canoniz’d by me
The Whigs little St. Anthony.

2-: From Mr. Henry W——n’s Answer to Bully Dawson, in Letters from the Dead to the Living, published in The Second Volume of the Works of Mr. Tho. Brown (London: Printed, and are to be Sold by B. Bragg, 1707), by Thomas Brown (bap.1663-d.1704):

Well, says the young Doctor, I’ll have one of the Wiggs to carry into the Country with me and please the Pigs; at Chelmsford you say? Yes, Sir, at Chelmsford, said I, the least Child in the Town knows him; ask but for the Barber and his Nineteen Daughters, and you cannot miss of him.

3-: From the title of a poem, by ‘Porcus’, published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle (London, England) of July 1750:

And Please the PIGS, A Tale. Address’d to a Lady of Jamaica, occasion’d by a late Incident there.

4-: From Virtue triumphant, and Pride abased; In the Humorous History of Dickey Gotham, and Doll Clod (London: Printed for M. Cooper, 1753), by ‘R. P. Biographer’:

Before I ever give ear to another of your caterwawling labours, I’ll learn to read for myself, an’t please the pigs, will I. I’ll not be made such a fool of; for I find you men care not what you say of one, so long as you know we can’t read it.
One of the Miss Gothams had some time before given her a good cast-off silk gown, which her mother had hitherto kept by her under lock and key, as too good for her wear; but now thinks Dolly, an’t please the pigs, I’ll have it on next Sunday: but what should she do for a cap?

5-: From The Card (London: Printed for the Maker, and Sold by J. Newbery, 1755), by John Kidgell:

“He’d warrant he could tame her.”—
“He tame her! says Betty, in an angry Tone: Lord, Madam, I’ll shall [sic] never love taming again, while I have Breath i’ my Body, please the Pigs.”—

6-: From Obscure Phrases explained, by ‘G. S.’, published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle (London, England) of March 1755:

Spick and span new, is an expression, the meaning of which is obvious, tho’ the words want explanation; and which, I presume, are a corruption of the Italian, Spiccata da la Spanna, snatched from the hand; opus ablatum incude; or according to another expression of our own, Fresh from the mint; in all which the same idea is conveyed by a different metaphor. It is well known that our language abounds with Italicisms, and it is probable the expression before us was coined when the English were as much bigotted to Italian fashions, as they now are to those of the French.
There is another expression much used by the vulgar, wherein the sense and words are equally obscure: The expression I mean is, An’t please the pigs, in which there is a peculiarity of dialect, a corruption of a word, and a common figure, called a metonymy: For in the first place, an in the midland is used for if; and pigs is most assuredly a corruption of Pyx, (from Pyxis and Πυξις) a vessel in which the host is kept in the Roman Catholic countries. In the last place the vessel is substituted for the host itself, by an easy metonymy, in the same manner as when we speak of the sense of the house, we do not mean to ascribe sense to bricks and stones, but to a certain number of representatives. The expression, therefore, means no more than Deo volente, or as it is translated into modern English by coachmen and carriers, God willing.




The phrase please the pigs is of unknown origin. It has been suggested—in particular, but without any supporting historical evidence—that, in this phrase, the plural noun pigs is an alteration of:
– the noun pixies, plural of pixie, designating a supernatural being with magical powers;
– the noun pyx, denoting the vessel or box in which the consecrated bread of the Eucharist is kept (cf., above, quotation 6).

The following folk-etymological explanations are from Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, giving the Derivation, Source, or Origin of Common Phrases, Allusions, and Words that have a Tale to Tell (London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, [1870]), the English educationist and lexicographer Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810-1897):

Please the pigs. If the Virgin permits. Saxon, piga (a virgin), whence Peggy, a common name of females in Scotland. In the Danish New Testament “maiden” is generally rendered pigen. “Pig Cross,” dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is Virgin Cross, or the Lady Cross. So also “Pig’s Hill,” “Pig’s Ditch,” in some instances at least, are the field and diggin’ attached to the Lady’s Chapel, though in others they are simply the hill and ditch where pigs were offered for sale. Another etymology is Please the pixies (fairies), a saying still common in Devonshire.
It is somewhat remarkable that pige should be Norse for maiden, and hog or og Gaelic for young generally. Thus ogan (a young man), and oige (a young woman).
The common notion that “please the pigs” is a corruption of “please the pix,” is wholly unworthy of credit.

Note: Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is often untrustworthy—cf. in particular the phrase to kick the bucket, meaning to die.

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