Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Pig and Whistle.

Is there a tavern in your town called ‘The Pig and Whistle’? It must be one of the most common pub names in the English-speaking world. But what does it mean?

The name is an example of folk etymology – the process by which a mistaken assumption about the meaning of an ‘old’ word causes it to be re-interpreted in the light of new analogies. I love finding examples of folk etymology, and today I want to share with you one of my favourites.

In older times, when utensils of all sorts were not mass-produced but individually crafted and therefore inherently more valuable, tavern patrons shared ale tankards. A series of holes in the side of the tankard were fitted with close-fitting pegs, and each drinker paid for, and drank down to, his allotted peg before handing it onto the next in line. As each man took the tankard, presumably he called out the ancient drinking salutation or pledge of ‘Wassail!’- a word which probably originated with the early Danish visitors to Britain, and can be loosely translated as ‘Your Health!’

So, over time, as one tankard per person became the norm, and folk had forgotten the literal meaning of the salutation – ‘peg and wassail’ evolved into ‘pig and whistle’! As an added bonus, probably from the same origin we get the phrases ‘to take someone down a peg or two’, and ‘pegging away’ at something.

Here is a nice refreshing, prepare-ahead, non-alcoholic beverage for you to share. It is from an edition of The Family Economist, described as ‘A Penny Monthly Magazine, devoted to the moral, physical, and domestic improvement of the industrious classes’, published in England in 1848.

P.S Alternative explanations for the name are given HERE. (Thanks to the anonymous commenter for the link!)

Soda Water and Ginger Beer Powders.
Carbonate of soda and tartaric acid, of each two ounces; fine loaf sugar rolled and sifted, 6 ounces; pure essence of lemon 25 or 30 drops. To be well mixed in a marble mortar,kept in a bottle closely corked, and in a very dry place. When required for use, two teaspoonfuls to less than a half pint of water, to be mixed in a glass that will hold twice that quantity, and drunk while in a state of effervescence. If half an ounce or one ounce (according as it may be liked more or less hot), of best ground ginger be mixed with the above quantity, it will be ‘ginger-beer powder.’

Quotation for the Day.

I fear the man who drinks water and so remembers this morning what the rest of us said last night.


Anonymous said...

Actually, "pig and whistle" for "peg and wassail" is an example of an eggcorn.

Your peg and wassail story, however, is likely folk etymology - when people take a strange phrase and make up an explanation for it.


Liz + Louka said...

Interesting, though this site thinks another meaning is more likely.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Liz - you didnt put the link in your comment - did you put it in again as 'Anonymous'? Either way, the alternative explanation is interesting. I have never heard of an 'eggcorn' before.

Liz + Louka said...

Hi Janet - Oops, no, anonymous wasn't me, but my link was the same one anonymous posted. I love following these etymological discussions.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Liz - I love the word discussions too. I definitely like the idea that 'whistle' comes from the servant having to whistle while he/she collected the beer to prove he/she was not drinking it!

Anonymous said...

Eggcorn comes from an odd variation of the word "acorn". There's quite a few of them.

I *still* am unable to use OpenID to leave comments, so I'm still, unfortunately, an ony mouse.

srhcb said...

Use "pig" as a verb, (ie: to pig out), and "whistle" is the (rear) end result?

The Old Foodie said...

Steve - great explanation, I think it will be my preferred one from now on!