If you got really lucky, Germans would say that you “had pig” (Schwein gehabt). And that’s just one of an estimated 150 or so German phrases that contain some reference to swine. Indeed, Germans rely on pig metaphors roughly as much as Americans resort to sports analogies.
Newcomers to Germany soon notice this strikingly intense, and intensely ambivalent, relationship between Germans and pigs. Germans obviously cherish pigs enough to put them on greeting cards, and to give out marzipan piglets (Glückschwein) on New Year’s Eve for good luck. But the love doesn’t stop them from eating pork on every occasion, inside a bratwurst, currywurst or in some other form.
Even a relatively simple expression, like Schwein gehabt, comes with two prevailing theories as to its origin. The first theory dates back to a card game popular in the 16th century, when an ace was called a sow (Sau). Whoever drew the sow was lucky.
The second theory also has its roots in early modern Germany, when food security was still a work in progress. Owning a pig ensured that a family wouldn’t starve, and thus meant good fortune even in tough times. That was true in other cultures too. The Chinese character for “home” is a pig under a roof.
But in medieval Germany, swine also took on negative associations. Pigs, alongside dogs, were symbols of repugnant, gluttonous behavior. Aristocrats produced illustrated books or carnival plays featuring pigs to show the peasants which behaviors to avoid, chiefly swinish manners and drunkenness. The aristocrats themselves, it goes without saying, were free to drink as much as they pleased.
“Today, the expression ‘drunk like a swine’ (voll wie ein Schwein), or in English ‘drunk like a skunk’’ updates that centuries-old idea,” explained art historian Alison Stewart in her 2014 publication, “Man’s Best Friend? Dogs and Pigs in Early Modern Germany.”
Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant reformation, also associated drunkenness with pigs, owing to the animal’s indiscriminate and omnivorous appetite. Swine, and dogs too, became synonymous with anything that was disgusting: vomiting or defecating, and so on. But dogs in Germany later outgrew those negative connotations. Pigs never did.
These associations, of course, are not exclusive to Germany. “The view of pigs as dirty and impure has existed in some form from very early on across different countries,” Thomas Macho, author of the book “Schweine,” told Handelsblatt. That’s why Judaism and Islam consider pork unkosher or haram, meaning forbidden.
But Germans took the imagery surrounding pigs further than other cultures ever did. In the middle ages, anti-Semitic Germans depicted sows of the Jews (Judensau). In stone carvings or wood engravings, Jews wearing kippahs are seen nursing from a sow or eating its feces.
In the 20th century, the Nazis adopted this imagery for their propaganda. In Nazi Germany, elementary students even made trips to see Judensau sculptures erected near German churches. The word Judensau is still used by Neo-Nazis to insult Jewish people.
But most pig idioms today are either neutral or positive. To “let the pig out” (Die Sau rauslassen) means to go wild in a good way, as at a party. This etymology also dates to the middle ages. When burgher wanted to clean their streets, they let out their swine, which chomped down the garbage, and appeared to be having a great time.
If I “recognize my pigs by their walk” (erkenne meine Schweine am Gang), I recognize a situation or a person from past experience. If you tell me that “we haven’t yet herded pigs together” (Wir haben zusammen noch keine Schweine gehütet), you’re letting me know that we don’t know each other well enough yet to forego formalities.
While the Germans don’t have an equivalent of “when pigs fly,” they do say “I think my pig is whistling” (Ich glaub’ mein Schwein pfeift) to express disbelief or astonishment. More generally, the Germans also sprinkle the prefixes schwein or sau to modify words for emphasis: “Super heavy” thus becomes “sow-heavy” (sauschwer). If Americans find the temperature cold as a witch’s tit, Germans consider it pig-cold (schweinekalt). If something is indecently expensive, it costs swine money (Schweinegeld).
But you can find your own examples, as you start to listen to the German conversations around you. We don’t want to hog the fun.
Christine Coester is an editor for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org