‘what can you expect from a hog but a grunt?’: meaning and early occurrences

The phrase what can you expect from a hog but a grunt?, and its numerous variants, mean that a person cannot be expected to behave in a manner that is not in their character.

This phrase occurs, for example, in They deserve to know, published in Sunday Life (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland) of Sunday 15th February 2004:

The revelation that Special Branch failed to stop the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane—even though it had three agents inside the UDA at the time—simply beggars belief.
‘Stakeknife’—the new book on Ulster’s ‘dirty war’ which is serialised exclusively in Sunday Life—makes harrowing reading for anyone affected by the Troubles.
Sadly, as one atrocity piled upon another, we became, as a society, almost immune to the human suffering terrorism causes.
There’s an old saying: what do you expect from a pig but a grunt.
All terrorists can ever contribute to society is pain and anguish.

These are, in chronological order, some of the earliest occurrences that I have found of the phrase what can you expect from a hog but a grunt? and variants:

1-: From Poor Robin. 1731. A New Almanack after the Old Fashion (London: Printed by W. Bowyer for the Company of Stationers, 1731):

We find Leaden-heel’d Saturn in the Seventh, in Opposition to the Ascendant, which signifies, that Charity will be as cold amongst Misers, as the Frost is in Christmas-Holidays; but there is no great Disappointment to receive no Favour from them, from whom none was expected. If we petition a Hog, what can we expect but a grunt.

2-: From a letter to Robert Williams, “endeavouring to act the Governor of the Mississippi Territory”, published in the Mississippi Herald & Natchez Gazette (Natchez, Mississippi, USA) of Wednesday 17th June 1807:

I perceived very plainly, the moment that your blood began to boil with honest indignation at the insolence and presumption of this vain self-conceited upstart, and was fearful of the consequences, but you have very agreeably disappointed me for once. It would have been a pity that this candle-fly politician should have given a moment’s uneasiness to a mind like your’s [sic], naturally disposed to philosophy. You know we should expect nothing from a hog but a grunt.

3-: From the United States’ Gazette for the Country (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA) of Monday 22nd May 1809—Robert Smith (1757-1842) served as Secretary of the Navy from 1801 to 1809, and as Secretary of State from 1809 to 1811:

It is said (and much to the honour of the present Secretary of State) that while in the navy department, he dispised [sic] the idea of making any party distinction in appointments. How different from the malignant surely disposition shown in another. But Mr. Smith is a gentleman, and of liberal education and enlightened mind; and the proverb says “we cannot expect beaver from a hog’s back.”

4-: From an entry dated Tuesday 10th April 1827 in the journal of the Scottish novelist and poet Walter Scott (1771-1832)—as published in The Journal of Walter Scott (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890):

April 10.—Some incivility from the Leith Bank, which I despise with my heels. I have done for settling my affairs all that any man—much more than most men—could have done, and they refuse a draught of £20, because, in mistake, it was £8 overdrawn. But what can be expected of a sow but a grumph? Wrought hard, hard.

5-: From The Age (London, England) of Sunday 25th September 1831—James De Ville (1777-1846) was a British phrenologist:

Craniological Considerations.—Mr. De Ville has had his hands full of heads lately. All the Ministry have submitted their skulls to his touch, and many fashionables, and some scamps, have followed their example. Phrenology is certainly a wonderful discovery. That a strong passion shall develope [sic] itself by a “bump on the nob” is a most astonishing argument of the mind’s action on the body, and yet we do not think that the system was carried to its full extent. If one child is “cunative” of gingerbread, and another “cupidative” of lollypops, why, thought we, should not the “organs of House-of-Commonsiveness” be strongly developed? These questions worked in our brain so long, that we are sure that the organ of “wonder-why-ativeness” must be visible to all who know us. But all our scepticism of these “heads” are removed, and we shall be “bump believers” as long as we live, for we find that Mr. De Ville (who is no calf) has detected the following appearances, although he was not told the names of the applicants until after he had displayed his feeling for them:—
Sir Robert Peel—Rattiveness.
The Duchess—Brandy-and-wateriveness.
Mr. Hawkins, M.P.—Break-down-in-his-set-speechiveness.
Mr. Wilde, M.P.—Welsh-bargainiveness.
Lord Brougham—Don’t-care-a-damn-about-anybodyativeness.
E. Ellice, M.P.—What-can-you-expect-from-a-hog-but-a-gruntiveness.
C. Kemble, Esq.—Take-a-thick-stick-and-whack-’em-over-the-skullativeness.
D. O’Connell, M.P.—Blarney-and-botherativeness.

6-: From The Morning Herald (London, England) of Monday 17th October 1831—the House of Lords rejected the Reform Bill on Saturday 8th October 1831:

Of the other Irish nobles who signalized themselves on that side the names are enough. What can you expect from a pig but a grunt? What hopes could be conceived of such names as Londonderry, Ely, Limerick, Clancarty, &c., in a question of common sense and common justice?

7-: From The York Gazette (York, Pennsylvania, USA) of Tuesday 5th February 1839:

“Mean Insult.—The BRUTES who were appointed on a committee to appoint the order of the inaugural ceremonies at Harrisburg, reserved no place for Gov. Ritner! thus passing a direct insult on his friends and supporters throughout the state.—We however cannot expect velvet on a hog’s ear!”

8-: From The Raymond Gazette (Raymond, Mississippi, USA) of Friday 3rd April 1846:

It is an old and familiar saying, that nothing may be expected from a hog but “a grunt,” and but little from a jackass but a “bray.” And we may now add, with equal force and truth, that nothing may be looked for, from the amazing smart man who does up editorials for that beautifully executed sheet dubbed the Vicksburg Sentinel, but the senseless cry of “abolitionist!” “abolitionist!”

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