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What are the Origins of the Phrase "Pearls Before Swine"?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 23, 2024

The term “pearls before swine” comes from the Sermon on the Mount, a famous speech given by Christ to his disciplines. It means that people should not waste pleasant or good things on people who will not appreciate them. The meaning of this phrase in the Sermon on the Mount is a topic of much debate among religious authorities, with some people believing that it simply means that Christians should only preach to a receptive audience, while others suspect that it specifically refers to the Romans, and other theories also abound.

In any case, “pearls before swine” is sometimes also seen as margaritas ante porcos, which means the same thing in Latin. Christ Himself, of course, would have said it in Aramaic, and in fact some people believe that the “pearls” in this phrase may have been mistranslated from the Aramaic, suggesting that Christ used a different word in this now-famous saying. Given that people have been talking about casting pearls before swine for two thousand years, a new translation is likely to meet with a frosty reception.

In the time of Christ, pigs were regarded as unclean animals in the Jewish faith, so in a sense, the term refers to giving great things to beings which are not worthy. The fact that pearls would be essentially useless to pigs has also been pointed out, as the term illustrates that it is rather foolish to give things to people who cannot or will not use them. Pigs are unlikely to realize the value of pearls when they see them, so tossing pearls to swine would really just be a waste.

There are all sorts of ways to use this idiom, and it has become so widespread that comic strips, books, and songs have been named after it. Many people use the term to talk about someone who doesn't appreciate the value of an item or another person, as in “George asked her out on a date, but it was like tossing pearls before swine.” Some people also use this term in a resentful sense, suggesting that they offered or gave someone something superb, and ended up being snubbed.

This idiom is also used to imply that someone is uncultured or unworthy, with the swine being the great unwashed masses, while the pearls are some superb and excellent offering. Many people who attempt to enact social change find themselves frustrated by the pearls before swine phenomenon, struggling to understand why people reject their proposals and ideas when they hold so much promise.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Markus — On May 15, 2011

@whitesand – I agree with you wholeheartedly! So many people don’t appreciate what they have. I think we fill our lives up with so many to-do lists that we sometimes forget to slow down long enough to express gratitude for what we’ve accomplished.

Also, I agree with the line in the article that states any new translations could have a frosty reception. I understand pearls before swine as meaning “lack in understanding of the good news (Gospel)”, but it has changed somewhat over the past 2000 years. I’ve heard it used in reference to receiving payment for a job well done, no work no pay.

By whitesand — On May 12, 2011

@Sierra02 – Some women just don’t know how to appreciate a good man, do they? Sounds like you have her pinned pretty well, after all, the biblical meaning of pearls before swines is that some people lack the wisdom of true appreciation and respect towards others.

Do you think maybe some people can’t accept a good thing because they don’t really know how? What I mean is if they didn’t appreciate the little things while growing up, then how are they supposed to appreciate a big ticket, like a cabin? I’m not talking about people who grow up in poverty, I mean the ones who don’t care about or abuse what they do have.

By Sierra02 — On May 11, 2011

That’s a good phrase to describe my sister-in-law and her attitude towards my brother. He bends over backward to support her and their kids, but nothing he does is ever good enough. She doesn’t deserve him and I’ve told her so many times.

He bought her a beautiful cabin so they could take vacations up in the Smoky Mountains a few years ago, and put her name only on the title. She's done nothing but gripe about that cabin since he bought it. She said she’d rather have the money. Pearls before the swine is the best way to describe her and her bad attitude.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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