Hog on ice

Slip-sliding away.

Hog on chair

Dear Word Detective:  I was just trying to find the origin of the phrase “Individual as a hog on ice,” and your website popped up.  I don’t see it there, so I was just wondering if you could find the answer and post it.  Thanks a billion! — Whitney.

Well, I’ll give it a shot, I guess.  This afternoon, probably, tomorrow at the latest.  You do realize that “a billion” isn’t what it used to be, right?  Definitely an also-ran in the motivational sweepstakes.  Even “a trillion” doesn’t take your breath away the way it once did.  The good news about all this conceptual inflation is that the average person may soon be able to truly grasp the concept of infinity. The bad news is that we’re gonna be pondering it while living under a bridge.

But hey, be here now, as my boss used to say.  I actually tackled a question about “hog on ice” about ten years ago with only middling success, and things haven’t gotten any clearer since then.  But it’s not just me — etymologists have been searching for an explanation of the phrase pretty much since it first appeared back in the mid-19th century. In fact, back in 1948 etymologist Charles Earle Funk titled his first book of word origins “A Hog on Ice,” and his foreword to that book contains a seven page narrative of his quest, ultimately inconclusive, for the roots of the phrase.

One of the possibilities that Funk explored was that the “hog” in “hog on ice” doesn’t actually refer to a pig, but to a stone used in the ancient game of curling, which involves sliding large flat stones across ice.  A “hog” in curling is a stone that has failed to travel the required distance and sits immobile in the way of further play.  But while this is an interesting convergence of “hog” and “ice,” it’s unlikely to be the source of a phrase so widely known today in both the US and the UK.

It’s more likely that “as independent as a hog on ice” simply refers to an actual hog that has escaped and somehow managed to wind up in the middle of a frozen pond or stream.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase as “denoting independence, awkwardness, or insecurity,” and I think all three qualities perfectly fit the predicament of a hog at such a moment.  While he’s technically free, his trotters can get no traction on the ice, making real escape impossible, and he’s more than likely to end up splayed helplessly on his belly, easily recaptured and returned to his pen.  This sense of “you’re free, but it’s not doing you any good” seems to be an important aspect of “independent as a hog on ice” in common usage (“They like to think of themselves as independents … independent as a hog on ice,” Time magazine, 1948).

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