Heading for the 'High' Ground

By Rob Kyff

July 15, 2020 3 min read

Why do we say that people enjoying an opulent, elegant lifestyle are living "high on the hog"?

The traditional explanation goes something like this: In Jolly Old England, the most desirable cuts of pork, which came from the upper parts of a hog's body, were reserved for aristocrats. (Picture festive medieval banquets — goblets, gobbling, gluttony, champagne fountains and ice sculptures.) So, ever since then, wealthy people have been described as "living high on the hog."

If that derivation were accurate, you'd expect to find this phrase appearing through the centuries in the works of British writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, right? Nope. Surprisingly, "high on the hog" first surfaced not in England during the Middle Ages but in the United States during the early 20th century.

"High on the hog" made its first recorded print appearance in the Kansas City Times on Nov. 28, 1919, when a Mr. Clyne was quoted as saying, "We're all eating too high up on the hog." Four months later, The New York Times reported, "Southern laborers who are eating too high up on the hog (pork chops and ham) and American housewives who eat far back on the beef (porterhouse and round steak) are to blame for the continued high cost of living, the American Institute of Meat Packers announced today."

So, while English speakers have surely been eating high on the hog for at least a millennium, the phrase "living (or eating) high on the hog" is apparently just a piglet, and an American piglet at that.

Speaking of which, a common but largely discredited folk etymology traces the term to the eating habits of piglets. By common belief, the upper teats on a sow's body were easier to reach and gave richer milk, so the piglets who nursed there were said to be eating "high on the hog."

Ambiguity and mystery also haunt another upscale word — "highfalutin," meaning "pretentious, pompous."

Some etymologists trace the term to the verb "flute," suggesting that people who tout their elevated status are engaging in "high fluting," i.e., "blowing their own horns."

But at least three other origins have been proposed: No. 1: It comes from the Dutch word "verlooten," meaning "stilted." No. 2: It began as a variation of "high-flying" or "high-flown," meaning "pretentious." No. 3: It's a misunderstanding of the phrase "high-gluten flour," which produces a higher quality of bread.

In truth, anyone who claims to know the precise origins of either "high on the hog" or "highfalutin" is just putting on errors.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: jdblack at Pixabay

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