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Lipstick on a pig

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The phrase to put "lipstick on a pig" means making superficial or cosmetic changes to a product in a futile effort to disguise its fundamental failings. There are many phrases using pigs, monkeys, or swine, dating back to biblical times. This phrase seems to have been coined in the 20th century but did not become a common phrase until the 21st century and is often used in politics.

The phrase "lipstick on a pig" has been used for centuries in various forms, including "you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear." The use of "lipstick on a pig" in its current form dates back to at least 1946, but it gained widespread use in political rhetoric during the 2008 United States presidential election, where it was used to criticize spin and to imply that an opponent (beginning with Sarah Palin) is attempting to repackage established policies and present them as new. It has since been used in political discourse in various countries, sometimes causing controversy.  


Pigs have long been featured in proverbial expressions: a "pig's ear", a "pig in a poke", as well as the Biblical expressions "pearls before swine" and "ring of gold in a swine's snout". Indeed, whereas the phrase "lipstick on a pig" seems to have been coined in the 20th century, the concept of the phrase may not be particularly recent. The similar expression, "You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear" seems to have been in use by the middle of the 16th century or earlier. Thomas Fuller, the British physician, noted the use of the phrase "A hog in armour is still but a hog" in 1732, here, as the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796) later noted "hog in armour" alludes to "an awkward or mean looking man or woman, finely dressed." The Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) recorded the variation "A hog in a silk waistcoat is still a hog" in his book of proverbs The Salt-Cellars (published 1887).[1]

The "lipstick" variant of the phrase is more modern (the word "lipstick" itself was only coined in 1880).[1] The rhetorical effect of linking pigs with lipstick was explored in 1926 by Charles F. Lummis, in the Los Angeles Times, when he wrote "Most of us know as much of history as a pig does of lipsticks."[1] However, the first recorded uses of "putting lipstick on a pig" are later. In Stella Gibbons' Westwood (published in 1946) Hebe visits a hair salon and has her hair "contemptuously washed by Miss Susan, who had a face like a very young pig that had managed to get hold of a lipstick".[2]

In an article in the Quad-City Herald (Brewster, Washington) from 31 January 1980, it was observed that "You can clean up a pig, put a ribbon on it's [sic] tail, spray it with perfume, but it is still a pig."[3] The phrase was also reported in 1985 when The Washington Post quoted a San Francisco radio host from KNBR remarking "That would be like putting lipstick on a pig" in reference to plans to refurbish Candlestick Park (rather than constructing a new stadium for the San Francisco Giants).[1][4]

In a 1983 article, "Sugar Loaf Key: Tales of the Swine Family", Hunter S. Thompson describes a prank in which he put lipstick on the head of a pig and put it in the toilet of a Florida resort owner.[5]

In the summer of 1992 at the Democratic National Convention, Texas governor Ann Richards said "Well, you can put lipstick on a hog and call it Monique, but it's still a pig."[6] This was in reference to a plan by president George H.W. Bush to use US warships to protect oil tankers in the Middle East.[7] Richards thought the program was wasteful spending.

21st-century usage[edit]

In May 2002, brokerage firm Charles Schwab Corporation ran a television advertisement pointing out Wall Street brokerage firms' conflicts of interest by showing an unidentified sales manager telling his salesmen, "Let's put some lipstick on this pig!" The ad appeared shortly after New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced that Merrill Lynch stock analysts had recommended stocks that they privately called "dogs". CBS refused to air the ad.[8]

The phrase was then used in political rhetoric to criticize spin, and to insinuate that a political opponent is attempting to repackage established policies and present them as new. Victoria Clarke, who was Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs under Donald Rumsfeld, published a book about spin in politics titled Lipstick on a Pig: Winning In the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game.[9] The book argued, using anecdotes from her own career, that spin does not work in an age of transparency, when everyone will find out the truth anyway ("you can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig").[10]

By 2008, the phrase had become common and often controversial political invective in the United Kingdom[11] and the United States. It was used by many US politicians, including the Democratic nominee Barack Obama and Republican nominee John McCain during the United States Presidential Election of 2008,[12][13][14] and Vice President Dick Cheney[15] (who called it his "favorite line").[16]

In 2017 in New Zealand, the phrase became controversial when Opportunities Party leader Gareth Morgan used it in a way that was interpreted by journalists as an insult to Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern.[17] Morgan said it was intended to describe Ardern's assumption of the Labour leadership as possibly a "superficial makeover" for the party.

Book titles[edit]

  • Lipstick on a Pig by Dennis A. Smith, Writing the Wrong Ltd, 2008, 2010, 2020 (ISBN 978-0-9582896-9-6)
  • Lipstick on a Pig: Winning In the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game, Victoria Clarke, Free Press, 2006 (ISBN 0743271165)
  • Putting Lipstick on a Pig (Rep and Melissa Pennyworth Mysteries), Michael Bowen, Poisoned Pen Press, 2008 (ISBN 1590585313)
  • If You Put Lipstick on a Pig – You Will Have A Beautiful Pig, Penelope Dyan, Bellissima Publishing LLC, 2008 (ISBN 1935118269)
  • Let's Put Some Lipstick on This Pig? Practical and Innovative Insights for the Selling Professional, Mark McGlinchey, Business Management Solutions, 2003 (ISBN 0972807608)
  • Election 2008: Lipstick on the Pig (Substance of Governance; Legitimate Grievances; Candidates on the Issues; Balanced Budget 101; Call to Arms: Fund We Not Them; Annotated Bibliography), Robert David Steele Vivas, Earth Intelligence Network, 2008, (ISBN 0971566151)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Ben Zimmer, Who First Put 'Lipstick on a Pig'? Slate.com 10 September 2008
  2. ^ Gibbons, Stella Westwood, 1946 ISBN 978-0-099-52872-2
  3. ^ Guzman, Monica (10 September 2008). "'Lipstick on a pig' finds origin in tiny state newspaper". blog.seattlepi.nwsource.com. SeattlePi.com. Retrieved 4 March 2015.
  4. ^ Mathews, Jay (16 November 1985). "San Francisco Tries To Keep Baseball Raiders at Bay". The Washington Post. Retrieved 27 September 2008.
  5. ^ Gonzo Papers, Vol. 3: Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream p.207
  6. ^ "Lipstick, pigs and memories of Ann". Dallas News. 10 September 2008. Retrieved 9 January 2021.
  7. ^ Zimmer, Ben (10 September 2008). "Where does the expression "lipstick on a pig" come from?". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 9 January 2021.
  8. ^ McGeehan, Patric K. (28 October 2002). "Schwab Ads Take Swipe at Big Firms". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 November 2011.
  9. ^ Clarke, Victoria (2006). Lipstick on a Pig: Winning In the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-7116-5.
  10. ^ Wendy Greenberg in Newswise Issue No. 200606, June 2006.
  11. ^ Labour 'lipstick on a pig' attack BBC news website Wednesday, 26 July 2006 BBC
  12. ^ "Obama rejects 'lipstick' charge". BBC. 10 September 2008..
  13. ^ "McCain Said "Lipstick" Too". Slate.
  14. ^ "Obama accuses McCain campaign of 'lies'" Associated Press, 10 September 2008
  15. ^ Turns out Dick Cheney knows about "lipstick on a pig" too Dallas Morning News 10 September 2008 trailblazersblog.dallasnews.com
  16. ^ Vice President's Remarks in Colorado Springs, Colorado
  17. ^ "PM blasts Morgan's 'lipstick on a pig' jibe". 30 June 2023.