put lipstick on a pig

Discuss word origins and meanings.

put lipstick on a pig

Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue Jul 22, 2008 12:27 am

I read the following in this week’s issue of The Week:
<2008 “In testimony before Congress this week, a somber Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned there is no end in sight for the ongoing economic downturn. . . Bernanke said the Fed was facing ‘significant challenges,’ since lowering interest rates to boost the economy would feed inflation. For most Americans, that means more pain ahead, said Richard Moody, an economist at Mission Residential. ‘There’s not enough lipstick to put on the pig,’ Moody said. ‘U.S. workers are falling farther and farther behind.’”—The Week, Vol. 8, Issue 371, 25 July, page 4>
The phrase PUT LIPSTICK ON A PIG is not uncommon, its meaning is fairly straightforward, and there is no shortage of examples of its use. However, it appears in precious few dictionaries (all related dictionary listings I came up with, you see below), and when it came to tracking down its origin, I hit a dead end. All I can say is that it seems likely (from the many quotes I found) that it had its origin in the southern part of the U.S. My earliest quote is from 1985 and I did determine that the speaker grew up in North Carolina. In the 2006 quote (see below), the author of a book titled Lipstick on a Pig refers to it as “an old aphorism,” without any further explanation as to its origin.

The general meaning of the expression is as defined below in the Cambridge International Dictionary, and a specific usage in the area of computer software lingo is also provided (see Dickson below). The word LIPSTICK, in the same sense as in the ‘pig’ expression, is also found in the new and used car business (see Partridge and the Princeton dictionary definitions below):


PUT LIPSTICK ON A PIG: If people put lipstick on a pig, they make superficial or cosmetic changes, hoping that it will make the product attractive.


PUT MORE LIPSTICK ON THE PIG: To make cosmetic changes on a software program to make it more appealing to consumers.


LIPSTICK noun U.S.: In the new and used car business, purely cosmetic touches.
<1959 “Some cars just give you a quick LIPSTICK job and try and pass themselves off as new.”—Of Anchors, Bezels, Pots and Scorchers, Chrysler Corporation, September>

<1997 “The car was basically lunched [[engine was toast]], but the service department had added some LIPSTICK.”—Big Con by Stephen Cannell, page 29>

21ST CENTURY DICTIONARY OF SLANG edited by the Princeton Language Institute

LIPSTICK (noun): Cartalk. Small changes, mostly for looks, made to make a new model car to look as if it has been significantly redesigned. The new four-door model looks like a major improvement from last season’s, but on close inspection you can see it’s all lipstick.
<1985 “KNBR, the AM radio station carrying Giants baseball games, had raised $20,000 toward the construction of a new downtown stadium. The board of supervisors, reluctant to commit to such a project, asked if they couldn’t use the money to renovate Candlestick Park. ‘That,’ replied KNBR personality Ron Lyons, ‘would be like PUTTING LIPSTICK ON A PIG.’-—Washington Post, 16 November, page C1> [[Ron Lyons grew up in, North Carolina]]

<1986 “‘No one is fooled by this purely cosmetic change,’ said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, an outspoken critic of the Reagan administration’s farm credit policies. ‘It’s like PUTTING LIPSTICK ON A PIG. It can’t hide the ugliness.’”—Dallas Morning News, 8 January>

<1986 “Mrs. Parker likes to describe Anderson [[Kansas farmer and state spokesman for the American Agricultural Movement]] as outspoken. He once called a piece of legislation an attempt to ‘PUT LIPSTICK ON A PIG, . . .”—Atchison Daily Globe (Kansas), 31 March, page 3>

<1986 “. . . a broadcaster with the New York Mets, said: ‘Somebody once told me that putting a dome on Candlestick would be like PUTTING LIPSTICK ON A PIG.’”—Los Angeles Time,15 June> [[se 1985 quote above]]

<1987 “But to say we are a good football team is like PUTTING LIPSTICK ON A PIG. There is no way the pig is going to be pretty.”—Galveston Daily News (Texas), 2 October, page 16>

<1990 “‘Nice clothes on me is like PUTTING LIPSTICK ON A PIG . . . . I can't believe that I am an emcee to the first fashion show I've ever seen,’ Bedsworth said.”—Orange County Register (Santa Ana, California), 25 October>

<1994 “Modest health-care reforms would be like ‘PUTTING LIPSTICK ON A PIG,’ but it's doubtful Congress will have the appetite for sweeping changes . . .”—Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Texas), 19 October>

<2000 “‘Were the court to accept all of Microsoft's proposed changes,’ the brief continued, ‘the government's proposed final judgment would be improved, but much of the vagueness and ambiguity would remain because it is inherent in the structure of document.’ A Microsoft spokesman, Mark Murray, said, ‘We view our revisions as PUTTING LIPSTICK ON A PIG.’”—New York Times, 2 June>

<2003 “Economists should not preach to noneconomists, who already know all they want to know about their self-interest. They aren’t likely to respond favorably to an altar call. As they about PUTING LIPSTICK ON A PIG, it’s a waste of time and it annoys the pig.”—Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 70, No. 1, July, page 4>

<2004 “John Edwards, Kerry's running mate, echoed Kerry's criticism of Friday's job-creation numbers. ‘They're going to try every way they know to PUT LIPSTICK ON THIS PIG,’ the North Carolina senator told cheering supporters at a rally in a Green Bay amusement park. ‘But you know when you PUT LIPSTICK ON A PIG, at the end of the day, it's still a pig.’”—Los Angeles Times, 4 September>

<2006 “. . . I return to that old aphorism: You can PUT LIPSTICK ON A PIG, but it's still a pig. If you've got a pig on your hands—which is to say, a tough story—no lipstick can be laid on thick enough to cover up that fact.”—LIPSTICK ON A PIG: Winning in the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game by Torie Clark, page 232-233> [[former Pentagon spokeswoman and the former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfled in the early Bush administration]]

<2007 “GM hasn't won over all the skeptics. Sticking a hybrid engine in a jumbo SUV is ‘PUTTING LIPSTICK ON A PIG,’ says Ronald Hwang, vehicle policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who argues that if GM is green serious, it should give up SUVs and build more efficient cars.”—www.Time.com, 11 October>

<2008 “She [[Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan]] was furious after reading comments made by the Alliance's [[US-Ireland Alliance pre-Oscar awards in Hollywood]] president Trina Vargo, in which she said efforts to help make the immigrants legal were ‘morally wrong’ and like PUTTING ‘LIPSTICK ON A PIG.’”—The Mirror (London), 7 January>

<2008 “The committee voted 15 to 12 against a proposal to give Florida full voting representation. Clinton supporters in the audience erupted in a chant of ‘Denver! Denver!’ - - a threat to take the fight to the convention in August. That was followed by a unanimous vote to give Florida half of its voting rights. The audience again erupted in heckling. ‘LIPSTICK ON A PIG!’ somebody shouted.”— Washington Post, 1 June>
(quotes from archived sources)

Ken G - July 21, 2008
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Re: put lipstick on a pig

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Mon Aug 18, 2008 12:23 am

A related saying - a rather older proverb - compares a fine-looking person without moral character to 'a gold ring in a sow's ear'.
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Re: put lipstick on a pig

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Aug 18, 2008 4:17 am

Edwin, Very nice. And if you hadn't indicated that A GOLD RING IN A SOW’S EAR had the specific meaning of “a fine-looking person without moral character,” I would have guessed that it was a ‘dead ringer’ for LIPSTICK ON A PIG.

When I did a search for GOLD RING IN A SOW'S EAR one offering of no particular authority said,

“Or, as the Latins said, ‘Asinus ad Lyram'--‘A gold ring in a sow's ear.’”

When I looked up the Latin expression, however, I found it defined as follows:
<“ASINUS AD LYRAM ~ the ass at the lyre [Varro, quoted in Gellius iii. 16 from Greek όνος προς λύραν [[onos pros luran]]. The expression implies ludicrous unfitness for an undertaking, though Varro appears to be signifying untimeliness.]”—A Dictionary of Latin Words and Phrases (1998) by James Morwood, page 22>
From this definition, it doesn't sound to me as if the Latin expression is a synonym for GOLD RING IN A SOW’S EAR, but I like them both.

Ken – August 17, 2008

[Note: Above corrected Greek spelling and pronunciation provided by Jim (a.k.a.zmjezhd) – see below]
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Re: put lipstick on a pig

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Mon Aug 18, 2008 7:56 am

The Donkey Serenade was made famous by Alan Jones (Tom's father), who did appear with Harpo et al, who made a pig's ear out of just about everything.
It's probably just coincidence.
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Re: put lipstick on a pig

Post by zmjezhd » Mon Aug 18, 2008 1:55 pm

όυοζ προζ λύραν

The the upsilon should be a nu and the two zetas should be final sigmas: όνος προς λύραν (onos pros luran).
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Re: put lipstick on a pig

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Aug 18, 2008 7:32 pm

Jim. Thanks. Well, I certainly mangled that one and the corrections have been made. I could say it's Gr**k to me, but I won't.

Ken – August 18, 2008
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Re: put lipstick on a pig

Post by p. g. cox » Tue Aug 19, 2008 2:58 am

I suppose that it could be akin to trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
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Re: put lipstick on a pig

Post by Bobinwales » Tue Aug 19, 2008 9:41 am

Or, as my second wife once said, "You can't make a sow's ear out of a pig's purse". I treasure her memory sometimes!
Last edited by Bobinwales on Fri Aug 22, 2008 9:34 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

Re:lipstick on pig-reference to Alan & Tom Jones

Post by incarnatus est » Fri Aug 22, 2008 3:26 am

Being interested in all things Harpo, I checked to see Tom Jones' father's name.

Tom jones given name is Thomas John Woodward.

His father was not the singer Alan Jones, referred to as the singer of Donkey Serenade. That was Allan Jones. His son was the pop singer Jack Jones.

That said, Allan Jones did feature in two movies with the Marx Bros: A Night at the opera and A Day at the races.

Respectfully submitted, Hugh Gilmore, father of Andrew Gilmore, Marx Bros expert.
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Re: put lipstick on a pig

Post by vinbrown » Wed Sep 10, 2008 9:13 pm

The argument that this was a common expression would be acceptable except for the fact that these are not stupid people. They choose their words very carefully. Or, if not, they should. Obama should recognize that, intended or not, the net effect of his remarks was comparing Palin to a pig. If that was his intent, he should be ashamed of himself. If not, he really needs to filter his comments a little better. If these are the type of thoughtless comments of which he is capable, Americans should think long and hard before casting a vote for him.

Personally, I think that this provides a valuable insight into the type of person that he really is. No matter how hard politicians try to hide their true nature, it inevitably surfaces - and usually at the most inopportune times. This is true for both sides of the political coin and voters should pay more careful attention to slip-ups like this.
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Re: put lipstick on a pig

Post by Bobinwales » Wed Sep 10, 2008 9:40 pm

Sorry vinbrown, I think you are reading more into this than was intended. Ken Greenwald started this thread on 21st July, which was a couple of months before Ms Palin was selected.

Your argument reminds me of the people who were outraged when the film of Tolkien's Two Towers was released because they thought it was in bad taste after nine-eleven, even though the book was first published in 1954.

Welcome to Wordwizard all the same, we tend to be a happy if argumentative bunch.
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Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

Re: put lipstick on a pig

Post by trolley » Wed Sep 10, 2008 10:03 pm

I might be inclined to think that this was just an innocent comment except that in Palin's speech accepting the party nomination last week, she joked that the only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull was lipstick. Hmmmm?
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Re: put lipstick on a pig

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Sep 10, 2008 10:41 pm

There’s only one solution I can see to this problem of the misinterpretation of slang phrases — ABSTINENCE! Look how marvelously it works for teenage pregnancy. And it could work just as effectively on slang phrases.
<2008 (article title) “Obama fires back at McCain camp for seizing on his ‘lipstick on a pig’ comment. GOP contends Obama's reference to its recent strategy was a sexist dig at VP pick Sarah Palin. Obama says Republicans are focusing on ‘phony and foolish diversions’ rather than the future.

NORFOLK, Va. -- Democrat Barack Obama lashed out at Republican John McCain this morning, accusing the Republican's presidential campaign of creating a false controversy to avoid dealing with serious issues.

On Tuesday, Obama argued that McCain's policies were similar to those of President George Bush even though Republicans were trying to repackage themselves as agents of change, an Obama theme. Obama said it was like putting lipstick on a pig, a reference that the McCain camp said was a sexist dig at GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Today, Obama fired back, saying the McCain campaign will "seize on an innocent remark, take it out of context, throw up an outrageous ad because they know it is catnip for the news media." Republicans "would much rather have the story about phony and foolish diversions than about the future."

Within moments of Obama's televised appearance, the McCain campaign shot back in an e-mail from spokesman Brian Rogers: "Barack Obama can't campaign with schoolyard insults and then try to claim outrage at the tone of the campaign. His talk of new politics is as empty as his campaign trail promises, and his record of bucking his party and reaching across the aisle simply doesn't exist."
. . . . . . . .

Obama had hoped to focus on education issues and the Republicans in their recent campaign stops have stressed energy independence, calls for change in Washington and an end to earmarks. But issues didn't have much of a chance as the talk on cable television, the media and the Internet has focused on the political effect of Palin and cosmetics.

The latest dispute started Tuesday in a campaign appearance in Virginia. Obama compared the policies of McCain to those of President Bush.

"John McCain says he is about change too, and so I guess his whole angle is: 'Watch out George Bush, except for economic policy, healthcare policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy and Karl Rove-style politics, we're really going to shake things up in Washington.' That's not change. That's just calling the same thing something different.

"You can put lipstick on a pig," Obama said. "It's still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change. It's still going to stink after eight years."

For the McCain campaign, the comments were a not-so-subtle reference to Palin's comments at the GOP convention. She asked delegates if they knew the difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom. "Lipstick," she said.

The McCain camp called Obama's comments "offensive and disgraceful" and said Obama owed Palin an apology. In its latest advertisement, the McCain campaign today called Obama's comments sexist and used the punch line: "Ready to lead? No. Ready to smear? Yes."

But Obama said the ad was a tactic to avoid serious debate.
. . . . . . . .

In an e-mail this morning, the Obama camp noted that McCain once used the same phrase about pigs and lipstick to describe Hillary Rodham Clinton's healthcare plan and President Bush's Iraq war strategy. Other Republicans using the phrase include prominent conservatives and congressmen such as Minority Leader John Boehner and Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, the Obama campaign said.—Los Angeles Times (see full story here), 11 September>
(for a view from the U.k. also see BBC News).

Ken G - September 10, 2008
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Re: put lipstick on a pig

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu Sep 11, 2008 3:10 am

Surely lipstick is what a Scotsman wears under his kilt.
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Re: put lipstick on a pig

Post by spiritus » Thu Sep 11, 2008 8:04 am

I'd like to know; what are the pros and cons of spaying a hockey mom and a pit bull? Moreover; does the application of lipstick or the presence of an anesthesiologist or cosmetologist simplify the procedure?
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