‘(as) independent as a hog on ice’: meaning and origin

Humorous and frequently ironic, the colloquial American-English phrase (as) independent as a hog on ice, and its variants, mean: determinedly or stubbornly independent.

This phrase occurs, for example, in Book evokes colorful phraseology of WNC, the review of Mountain Born: A Recollection of Life and Language in Western North Carolina (Spartanburg, South Carolina: The Reprint Company Publishers, 2009), by Jean Boone Benfield—review by Rob Neufeld, published in the Citizen Times (Asheville, North Carolina, USA) of Monday 14th March 2022:

Observations and judgments about kith and kin were great fodder for poetry. “Jimmy told him that mash wuz bad,” Jean overheard someone say, “but he wouldn’t listen; he’s as independent as a hog on ice.” The hog refers not to a pig, but to a stone that blocks the way in the Scots game of curling *.

[* Etymological note: Nothing in the early occurrences of the phrase (as) independent as a hog on ice and variants supports the theory that the noun hog denotes “a stone that blocks the way in the Scots game of curling”. On the contrary, formulations such as “the independence of a hog on the ice, or in the sty” (in quotation 3, below), “he illustrates his independence by “a hog on ice—if he can’t stand up and walk, he will lay down and slide!”” (in quotation 7), and “indepen’t [sic] as a hog on ice, they will succeed in performing about as a hog on ice. They will neither go nor stand.” (in quotation 9) seem to indicate that the phrase humorously (and paradoxically) refers to the extreme helplessness of a hog (i.e., a pig) on the ice.]

The earliest occurrences of the phrase hog on ice and variants that I have found are as follows, in chronological order—in early use, this phrase sometimes referred to newspapers’ independence:

1-: From On the Increase of Nominal Saints, published in Short Patent Sermons (New York: Printed by Lawrence Labree, 1841), by ‘Dow, Jr.’ (Eldridge Gerry Paige – 1813-1859):

New England, at the present day, isn’t what it was when my father was a boy. Then it was the home of uprightness—the people were all as honest as the cooper’s cow—independent as a hog on ice—sober as judges—and moral as a quantity of psalm books. Then the sturdy and steady sons of the yeomanry had not turned pedlars; for they had not discovered the receipts for making wooden nutmegs, bas-wood hams, natural curiosities, glue and leather mummies, wooden clocks warranted not to keep time, &c., &c. Oh, there is a vast falling off here, as well as elsewhere!

2-: From The Daily Crescent (New Orleans, Louisiana, USA) of Saturday 10th June 1848:

An Independent Publisher.—We are in receipt of a paper dated Santa Cruz de Rosales, Mexico, by Mr. P. G. Ferguson, containing the report of the capture of that place by Gen. Price (which has already been published). It is certainly a queer-looking sheet—the size of a cabbage leaf, and looks as if it had been set up from a mass of “pi,” and even at that, he was only able to get up three pages. But let the editor tell his own story:
“When the American troops entered this place, among other property that fell into their hands was a printing press and types. The implements of the Great Art were in a very bad condition, having been ‘knocked into pi’ by a cannon ball that entered from the top of the building, playing the devil with the types and the stands. We found the office in this condition, and after considerable labor succeeded in arranging it in a tolerable manner. The types are very much worn, and the press is the oldest we have ever seen. With such materials our readers cannot be surprised at the appearance of our sheet—and if they don’t like it, they need not subscribe—we are as independent a hog on ice, and don’t care a copper for public opinion. For our own amusement we issue this paper, and not being troubled with those kind customers called patrons, we can pursue the even tenor of our way and snap our fingers at the world and all its nest of grumblers.”

3-: From Address delivered before the Grand River Valley Agricultural Society, Oct. 15th, 1850, by Rev. H. S. Weller, published in Transactions of the State Agricultural Society, with Reports of County Agricultural Societies, for 1850 (Lansing, Michigan: R. W. Ingals, State Printer, 1851):

If, by independence is meant standing aloof from the intelligence and science of the age—becoming alien to its enterprise and spirit of improvement—cutting off the refinements and enjoyments of cultivated society—the independence of a hog on the ice, or in the sty, we will readily grant it to those who make the claim, with all its honors.

4-: From The Iowa Democratic Enquirer (Muscatine, Iowa, USA) of Saturday 28th December 1850:

The Hollidays [sic].

Our readers will be surprised to see this small sheet; but when we remind them that Printers, as well as other folks, know how to enjoy the sports of the hollidays [sic], and can as well appreciate good cheer, they will, of course, excuse it.—Not to be tedious, we deem it unnecessary to say more than that having been presented with a fine turkey and a bag of buck-wheat we want to lay by and enjoy them! We shall issue a sheet of this size next week, also; deeming it better to do so, than to let this week go by without any issue at all. This arrangement gives part of two weeks (or all the hollidays [sic]) instead of one whole week. Who objects? Let ’em pay up and discontinue—don’t care a copper—we’re as independent as a hog on ice! Here’s to you, reader—“A merry Christmas to all!”

5-: From the Daily Evening Star (Washington, District of Columbia, USA) of Friday 28th January 1853:

Royal Correspondence—Rich.

Mr. Warren Stagg, of Cincinnati, Ohio, is certainly getting into the eye of the world. The tender lines annexed are bristling with good feeling; they are, indeed,
           “Links of sweetness
            Long drawn out.”
We presume that Mr. Stagg is now independent of the domestic trade—“as independent as a hog on the ice;” that he looks to the élite of Europe for customers, and sings with the poet,—
           “No pent up Ohio contracts my powers,
            The boundless Continents are ours.”

6-: From the column This and That, published in the Kenosha Democrat (Kenosha, Wisconsin, USA) of Friday 26th August 1853:

The Telegraph says of the Tribune:
Its course is a matter of little consequence—we care not a copper what course it takes, and take leave of it on this question.
When the Telegraph wanted to elect Durkee and Dana to office, it felt differently about the “consequence” of the Tribune. This is the usual way with the free soilers. They purr round when they want help, and when they get it are as independent as “hogs on ice.”

7-: From the Muscatine Journal (Muscatine, Iowa, USA) of Friday 18th November 1853:

“Cedar County Advertiser.”—This the title of a neatly printed paper which we have seen in the stores and shops of some of our friends (not having received a copy at this office,) hailing from Tipton, Cedar county, Iowa—Charles Swetland, proprietor, and Wells Spicer and H. C. Platt, editors. Mr. Swetland writes the introductory, (novel duty for a publisher only,) in which, among quaint sayings, he illustrates his independence by “a hog on ice—if he can’t stand up and walk, he will lay down and slide!” We hope the “Advertiser” will be able to “stand up and walk”—or even run, if desired.

8-: From Help, a poem from Home Journal, by Walter Wildrake, published in the Monongahela Republican (Monongahela, Pennsylvania, USA) of Friday 20th January 1854:

Were you ever left without a help,
In the country, far away?
Did you ever know the want of help
Upon a washing day?
Ever obliged to get along
By hook, sirs, or by crook,—
And have to broil your own beefsteaks, because you had no cook?

We had a help, but used to think
Much better were without;—
She was always getting in a huff,
And pitching things about;
She wouldn’t wash the dishes clean,
Nor keep the parlor nice,—
“And was just as independant [sic] as a hog upon the ice!”

9-: From The Summit Beacon (Akron, Ohio, USA) of Wednesday 12th July 1854:

Maine.—The Bangor Mercury (Whig) shows that opponents of the Nebraska Iniquity may be returned to Congress from nearly or quite every District in that State by union and effort. It closes as follows:
“But this rose-colored landscape in not to be realized for nothing. We cannot expect the Morrill Democrats to do so much for us if we will do nothing for them. If the Whigs of this State, as an organization, in this contest, set their backs up stiff and haughty, indepen’t [sic] as a hog on ice, they will succeed in performing about as a hog on ice. They will neither go nor stand. We say to them, be wise, be wise; pursue no shadows; go for the substance; names are nothing; facts are the things.”
—Will the Whigs of Michigan and other Free States think of these things?

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