When pigs fly

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
A doctored photograph showing a winged pig

The phrase "when pigs fly" (alternatively, "pigs might fly") is an adynaton—a figure of speech so hyperbolic that it describes an impossibility. The implication of such a phrase is that the circumstances in question (the adynaton, and the circumstances to which the adynaton is being applied) will never occur. The phrase has been used in various forms since the 1600s as a sarcastic remark.[1]


John Moore-Brabazon, 1st Baron Brabazon of Tara took a small pig with him on board an aeroplane in 1909

"When pigs fly" is an adynaton, a way of saying that something will never happen. The phrase is often used for humorous effect, to scoff at over-ambition. There are numerous variations on the theme; when an individual with a reputation for failure finally succeeds, onlookers may sarcastically claim to see a flying pig. ("Hey look! A flying pig!")[2] Other variations on the phrase include "And pigs will fly", this one in retort to an outlandish statement.

An example occurs in the film The Eagle Has Landed: an Irish secret agent working for the Nazis replies to a German general speaking of Germany's shortly winning World War II, "Pigs may fly, General, but I doubt it!" Later, when the Irishman sees German soldiers parachuting before an attack, he says to himself, "Mother of God! Flying pigs!"

An identical phrase, used to express impossibilities, exists in Romanian, Când o zbura porcul, literally meaning "When the pig shall fly"; an equivalent also implying an animal is La Paștele cailor, literally: "on horses' Easter". Similar phrases in English include "when hell freezes over", the Latin expression "to the Greek calends", and "and monkeys might fly out of my butt", popularized in Wayne's World skits and movies. The German "Wenn Schweine fliegen können!" is identical with the English saying , although the older proverb "Wenn Schweine Flügel hätten, wäre alles möglich" ("if pigs had wings, everything would be possible") is in more common use.[3] They are examples of adynata.[4] In Finnish, the expression "kun lehmät lentävät" (when cows fly) is used because of its alliteration. In French, the most common expression is "quand les poules auront des dents" (when hens will have teeth). In Russian, a popular expression with a similar meaning is "когда рак на горе свистнет" (when the crayfish will whistle on the mountain). In medieval Hebrew manuscripts, the expression "until the donkey ascends the ladder" is attested.[5]

The idiom is apparently derived from a centuries-old Scottish proverb, though some other references to pigs flying or pigs with wings are more famous. In his Fourth Book of Gargantua and Pantagruel from 1552, François Rabelais makes the aphorism into a dramatic event, when the giant Pantagruel fights the Chitterlings and its champion, "a huge, fat, thick, grizzly swine, with long and large wings, like those of a windmill."[6]

At least one appears in the works of Lewis Carroll:

"Thinking again?" the Duchess asked, with another dig of her sharp little chin.
"I've a right to think," said Alice sharply, for she was beginning to feel a little worried.
"Just about as much right," said the Duchess, "as pigs have to fly ..." — Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 9.[7]

American literature author John Steinbeck was told by his professor that he would be an author when pigs flew. When he eventually became a novelist, he started to print every book he wrote with the insignia "Ad astra per alas porci" (to the stars on the wings of a pig).[8] He sometimes added an image of a flying pig, called "Pigasus".

Pigasus was a flying pig character in the Oz books written by Ruth Plumly Thompson in the 1930s.[9]


The term, "When pigs fly" was orginated in Belguim. It was made when an ancient tablet found in the Nile River told of legendary flying pigs. They were rarely known as the animal of Frigg. When her son, Balder died from mistletoe she actually rejoced according to a local in a town called Sombreffe. The local, Jacques Brel living in a rented hotel called the Safestay Brussels. He told the tale according to an unknown friend. Balder was made to be immune to everything by his mother. Except the flying pig. The pig came down and struck Balder's heart with it's tusk. The other locals desendents wanted the Norse myth to be beliveable so they changed to the tale. The earlier locals made the term when they claimed to have seen a pig fly across the horizen. The boy that claimed this was named Patrick Maes. The boy went out to put away the cows and saw a flying pig. The account was never recorded because it was such an unbeliveable story. Patrick Maes' great great great great great grandson was told the tale throughout his childhood. The grandson wanted to remain anonymous due to publicity. The unbeliveable story made the term "When pigs fly" in 1568.


  1. ^ "when pigs fly origin". Largest Idioms Dictionary. Theidioms.com. Retrieved 28 October 2018.
  2. ^ "Pigs might fly". World Wide Words. 2002-04-06. Retrieved 2013-04-14.
  3. ^ "When pigs fly". 3 October 2021.
  4. ^ Haylett, Trevor (June 4, 1993). "Tennis: Martina primed for revenge". The Independent. Retrieved May 13, 2009.
  5. ^ Buda, Zsofi. "Until the donkey ascends the ladder: Hebrew scribal formulae". British Library: Asian and African Studies Blog. Retrieved 4 March 2020.
  6. ^ Rabelais, François. "Gargantua and His Son Pantagruel". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 2022-02-26.
  7. ^ Carroll, Lewis (1991). Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: The Millennium Fulcrum Edition 3.0 (PDF). p. 69.
  8. ^ John Steinbeck: A Biography, Jay Parini, Holt Publishing, 1996
  9. ^ Jack Snow, Who's Who in Oz, Chicago, Reilly & Lee, 1954; New York, Peter Bedrick Books, 1988; p. 161.

External links[edit]