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.<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 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):
CAMBRIDGE INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY
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.
SLANG: THE AUTHORITATIVE TOPIC BY TOPIC DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN LINGOES FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE by Paul Dickson
PUT MORE LIPSTICK ON THE PIG: To make cosmetic changes on a software program to make it more appealing to consumers.
NEW PARTRIDGE DICTIONARY OF SLANG AND UNCONVENTIONAL ENGLISH
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.
(quotes from archived sources)<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>
Ken G - July 21, 2008