‘to drive pigs (to market)’: meaning and origin

The colloquial phrase to drive pigs (to market), and its variants, mean to snore.

This phrase likens a person’s snoring to the sound made by a herd of pigs.

The phrase to drive pigs (to market) was mentioned in the column John Chatham’s Gossip, published in the Illustrated Leicester Chronicle (Leicester, Leicestershire, England) of Saturday 8th May 1948:

Quaint Phrases

In response to my request to readers for picturesque phrases, Mr. Ronald Pollock, who was for some years in the shoe industry, sends the expression “leather and prunella.”
To workers in the trade, prunella will be familiar as the name given to a cloth used in making uppers, and “leather and prunella” signifies something which is superficial or non-essential.
As an alternative to “soft soap” Mrs. E. P. Burnley supplies “soft sawder.” This reader also points out that some of the pleasantest phrases concern pigs. “A pig in a poke,” “a pig’s whisper,” (a loud whisper—or a short space of time), “to drive pigs to market,” (to snore), “to bring one’s pigs to a pretty market,” (to mismanage one’s affairs) and “to go to pigs and whistles,” (the same thing as going to the dogs) are porcine examples sent by Mrs. Burnley.

The earliest occurrences of the phrase to drive pigs (to market) and variants that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From The Dialect of Craven, in the West-Riding of the County of York (London: Printed for Wm. Crofts; and Robinson and Hernaman, Leeds; 1828), by William Carr (d. 1843):

“To drive pigs,” to snore.

2-: From The Clockmaker; Or, the Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick, of Slickville (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, and Blanchard, 1837), by the Nova-Scotian author Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796-1865):

[Nabb] crawls up to the window and peeps in and watches there till Bill should go to bed, thinking the best way to catch them are sort of animals is to catch them asleep. Well, he kept Nabb a waiting outside so long, with his talking and singing, that he well nigh fell asleep first himself; at last Bill began to strip for bed. First he takes out a long pocket pistol, examines the priming, and lays it down on the table near the head of the bed.
When Nabb sees this, he begins to creep like all over, and feel kinder ugly, and rather sick of his job; but when he seed him jump into bed, and heered him snore out a noise like a man driving pigs to market, he plucked up courage, and thought he might do it easy arter all if he was to open the door softly, and make one spring on him before he could wake.

3-: From What many people do, but nobody owns to, by the British author Eliza Cook (1818-1889), published in Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post (Exeter, Devon, England) of Thursday 5th August 1852:

It is a strange psychological fact, that not one of us will own to snoring. Is it that we are so acutely aware of the unseemly fashion of the face which is ever assumed under the somnific act and deed? We must admit that beauty is not in the ascendant when open mouth and dropping chin form our most ostensible features, frequently displaying our incisors, whether they do justice to Rowland’s dentifrice, or not. Fascination is out of the question while we are observed under the ridiculous inanity of countenance that attends poppy-juice inebriation; and all the loves and graces owned by Venus and Adonis are utterly annihilated by the visionary occupation of “driving pigs to market.”

4-: From a correspondence from Victoria, in British Columbia, Canada, published in The Times (London, England) of Friday 27th August 1858:

In Victoria a commmioner [sic] of police and men under him have been appointed, and the peace and good order of the place are really perfectly preserved; the crowds of all nations there assembled in a state of squatation, to use a new paraphrase, behaving very peaceably. I have walked several times through the encampments of tents, filled with weary sleepers, at late hours—11 at night to 1 o’clock in the morning—without the least molestation, the only sound heard being that of such of the sleepers as “drive their pigs to market” o’ nights.

5-: From My Neighbour in the Bed-Room, an unsigned short story published in The Belfast Morning News (Belfast, Antrim, Ireland) of Wednesday 17th October 1860:

If an enormous pair of shoes in the passage—almost as large as punts—had not revealed the proximity of Mr. Bell, I should at once have been made aware of the fact by the nasal melody which issued from the adjoining apartment. People who drink port wine generally snore a great deal, and snore very loudly. I had seen Mr. Bell dispose of a bottle of port wine, and now I heard him snore. He was at all times, I should say, a most emphatic snorer.—Whatever energy there was in his nature appeared to find a vent through his nostrils. There is a vulgar phrase about driving pigs to market, having reference, I believe, to the noise made by the animals themselves; the herd driven by Mr. Bell, numerous enough to have stocked Newgate market, emitted every variety of sound, from the faintest grunt to the deepest thunder. He literally shook, not his own room only, but mine also, and our beds, I discovered, were unfortunately placed side by side against the same partition.

6-: From Chapter V of Our Old Chimney Nook. A Christmas Story, by the Lancastrian author Benjamin Brierley (1825-1896), published in several Lancastrian newspapers on Saturday 28th December 1867—for example in the Rochdale Observer (Rochdale, Lancashire, England):

“Theigher!” said my Grandfather, laying down his knife and fork when the last strip of bacon had disappeared,—[…] aw’ll just […] see if aw con find a wink or two o’ sleep, for aw’re eaut o’ bed lung afore my time this mornin’. Wakken me, willta, Robin, when theau thinks yon job’s settled.”
My Grandfather receiving assurances from Robin that he should not be allowed to oversleep himself, threw his head back, and was soon comfortably transported to the land of Nod.
“Ther’s a young felly wants thee i’th’ kitchen, Robin,” said the landlady, creeping stealthily into the room, upon hearing that my Grandfather was engaged in “driving pigs.”
“Wants me?” said Robin.

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