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lipstick on a pig


an unsuccessful attempt to make something ugly look more attractive

'British Atlanta Highway does represent “the worst of … unsightly, car-choked suburban development.” The story mentioned that a study of Atlanta Highway and other corridors will include ideas for improvements such as sidewalks and landscaping. This simply is putting lipstick on a pig.'

Athens Banner-Herald, USA2nd February 2009

Have you ever tried to 'dress up' something unappealing in a vain attempt to make it look better? For instance, that tired old sofa is still looking tired, even though you've put a 'luxury throw' on it, and that ugly concrete yard is still a concrete yard, even though you've adorned it with a couple of pot plants. These attempts to make something unpleasant look more attractive which, despite our best efforts, are decidedly unsuccessful, are classic examples of lipstick on a pig.

you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig

Idioms populate the world of neologisms less often than other word classes so it's always a refreshing change to see a new idiom gain currency. And lipstick on a pig has hit the spotlight in spectacular style, popularised by no less than the US President himself, Barack Obama.

In September 2008, during his presidential campaign, Obama argued that the policies advocated by Republican candidates John McCain and Sarah Palin did not represent change, they were just a mechanism for calling the same thing by a different name. He then went on to famously say: “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig …”.

Not surprisingly, the use of such a comment sparked controversy, some arguing that 'pig' and 'lipstick' were indiscreet jibes at vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The comment was also widely interpreted as a play on Palin's joke during the Republican National Convention, that the only difference between a pit bull (an aggressive dog) and a hockey mom (a mother devoted to her child's hockey participation) was lipstick.

Whether the use of the expression was spontaneous or orchestrated, the ensuing media coverage catapulted lipstick on a pig into the limelight, both in and out of the political arena. It now looks like the expression is here to stay, with its most frequent collocate being the verb put, as illustrated in the citations above.

Background – lipstick on a pig

Though the expression lipstick on a pig may be relatively new, porcine (i.e. pig-related) idioms and phrases have permeated the English language for a very long time, with the poor old pig always carrying negative connotations (compare sweat like a pig, make a pig's ear of something, a pig in a poke, etc). In fact the idea of vain attempts at converting something from ugly to attractive, as intended by use of lipstick on a pig, is similar to that of the famous old proverb “You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear”, which dates back to the mid-16th century.

The word lipstick didn't itself appear until the late 19th century, so the idea of incongruously adorning a pig with cosmetics is comparatively new. Its origins do however date as far back as 1926, when Charles Lummis, editor of the Los Angeles Times, commented that “Most of us know as much of history as a pig does of lipsticks.”

Though President Obama recently galvanised popular use, the exact wording of lipstick on a pig has existed in political rhetoric for a number of years. The expression criticizes spin and is used to insinuate that a political opponent is attempting to repackage established policies and present them as new. It notably features in the title of the book Lipstick on a Pig: Winning In the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game (Free Press 2006), written by former Pentagon communications director Torie Clarke.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 16th February 2009.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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