Where Does the Phrase "Sweating like a Pig" Come from?

The phrase "sweating like a pig" actually has nothing to do with the animal that you might find on a farm. Instead, it refers to iron "sows" and "piglets" made when smelting pig iron. In traditional iron smelting, liquid iron is poured into a mold shaped like one long line with many smaller lines branching off of it at right angles. This looks similar to piglets feeding from their mother, so these pieces became known as pigs. After the pigs are poured into the sand, they cool, causing the surrounding air to reach its dew point and turn into moisture on the pigs, like they are sweating. When the pig is sweating, it's cool enough to be moved.

More facts about pigs and iron smelting:

  • The animal type of pig actually can't sweat very well. They have only a few sweat glands — compared with more than 2 million in humans — and the sweat glands that pigs do have don't work very well. To keep cool, pigs have to cover themselves in water and mud.

  • Pig iron was made at least as long ago as the Zhou Dynasty in China, in the eighth century BC – hundreds of years before the process for making pig iron was discovered in the West.

  • There are many other pig-related idioms in English, including "when pigs fly," "eating like a hog," "a pig in a poke," to "pig out" and "making a silk purse out of a sow's ear."
More Info: www.pigiron.org.uk

Discussion Comments


Typical dew points are between -4.5 to 15.5 C. in most environments the ambient temperature is above the dew point and no “sweating” will occur on the pig iron (or on anything else in the area).

I suspect that the origin of this phrase may have to do with cooking a whole pig on a spit over a fire. As the pig is cooked it will begin to “sweat”. While opinion varies, a slight sweat is commonly considered ideal. Too much sweating means the fire is too high and too close to the pig. Too little or no sweating means the fire is too cold or too far from the pig.

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