“Lipstick on a pig” is a figure of speech used to describe attempts to make an ugly fact, policy or item seem more appealing. These attempts fail, in the speaker’s view, because the object’s essential nature cannot be changed by surface or cosmetic adjustments. Although the term “lipstick on a pig” was coined in the 20th century, many older phrases use the pig as a sort of standard for the crude or undesirable. The phrase was used frequently by candidates and news media during the 2008 United States presidential election.
Pigs are, of course, used as a food staple around the world, and some people even keep pigs as pets. They are, however, commonly perceived as lazy, filthy creatures because of their long history as domesticated farm animals. Consequently, many people use pigs as verbal shorthand when they want to describe someone or something as gluttonous, slothful, unrefined or otherwise unattractive. To put “lipstick on a pig” would thus be a waste of time and good lipstick; most people still would not want to kiss one.
Similar phrases have been in use since at least Biblical times; a passage in Proverbs refers to a “gold ring in a swine’s snout.” The common expression “pearls before swine,” meaning to waste something precious by offering it to those who can’t appreciate it, was used, and perhaps coined, by Jesus Christ during the Sermon on the Mount. Other pig-related terms include “making a silk purse from a sow’s ear,” which has been in use since at least the 1600s. The phrase “lipstick on a pig,” however, was not documented until the 20th century; lipstick itself was not invented until the 1880s.
During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, the Democrat and Republican candidates each accused their opponents of putting “lipstick on a pig,” that is, manipulating voters into accepting undesirable policies. Media outlets quickly gave the phrase global currency. In September 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain took issue with Democrat candidate Barack Obama’s use of the phrase, claiming that Obama was referring to his running mate, Alaska governor Sarah Palin. On the campaign trail, Palin often referred to herself, jokingly, as “a pit bull in lipstick.” McCain had used the phrase “lipstick on a pig” the previous year to describe an opponent’s policies.