Out on a limb


out on a limb


Look who’s back! We’ll call this our “where’s the beef” edition of our fan-favorite feature about the origins of the phrases we commonly use. This entry is all about “the other white meat”…







ham handed

This is more ham-fisted than handed, but either way, that is not the way to tenderize pork…

Ham handed – A ham is large and comes out from the bone in much the same way that a large hand comes out from a person’s wrist (the bone is often cut off before a ham reaches a modern supermarket). As a result, “ham-handed” came to mean a large hand; by extension, a clumsy hand (since large hands are often not suited to precise work), and by extension from that, any clumsy or amateurish action.


pork barrel

No, this is not how they make smoked bacon…

Pork barrel – In the twentieth century, modern refrigeration made the actual pork barrel obsolete. But it took on new life in referring to political bills that bring home the bacon to a legislator’s district and constituents. Pork had been used at least since the 1870s as a label for politically motivated federal funding for local projects like post offices. We read in the Congressional Record in regard to an 1888 rivers and harbors appropriation, “Has the pork been so cunningly divided amongst the members of the House in this bill that its final passage is assured?”

By 1909, pork barrel itself was making the rounds of Congress. An article that year explains that the Democratic Party “has periodically inveighed against the extravagance of the administration, but its representatives in the Legislature have exercised no critical surveillance over the appropriations. They have preferred to take for their own constituencies whatever could be got out of the congressional ‘pork barrel.'” Similarly, an article in 1916 opposing a “trend towards national defense on the basis of the State militia” argues that it is “a triumph for the pork-barrel.”

I woulpig in a poked be annoyed, too, if I didn’t find this cutie in the bag…

Pig in a poke – ‘Don’t buy a pig in a poke’ might seem odd and archaic language. It’s true that the phrase is very old, but actually it can be taken quite literally and remains good advice.

The advice being given is ‘don’t buy a pig until you have seen it’. A poke is a sack or bag. It has a French origin as ‘poque’. Poke is still in use in several English-speaking countries, notably Scotland and the USA, and describes just the sort of bag that would be useful for carrying a piglet to market.

A pig that’s in a poke might turn out to be no pig at all. If a merchant tried to cheat by substituting a lower value animal, the trick could be uncovered by “letting the cat out of the bag”. The advice has stood the test of time and people have been repeating it in one form or the other for getting on for five hundred years, maybe longer.

in a pigs eye

Look at those tiny eyes, I’m surprised they don’t bump into everything…

In a pig’s eye – Saved this one for last as its origins are the toughest and open to wide speculation. There is some evidence to support its common meaning (sarcastic disbelief) was first used in 1847, primarily in North America.

Various theories about why “a pig’s eye”, including the tiny, squinty eyes of a pig seem to suggest a suspicious or disbelieving look. Another is that they are so tiny, it would be hard to imagine anything could “fit” in the opening.

Whatever the case, if someone says “in a pig’s eye” as a response to you, know that they don’t believe you…and aren’t being nice about saying it, either!

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