when pigs fly

Pigs fly

A flying pig is a symbol of an impossible event coming to pass. The popular saying "[it will happen] when pigs fly" (or when pigs have wings) is traditionally used to mean that the specified event will never occur.

Although there are several opinions about the origin of the saying, in Cincinnati, the story is that when the hogs were delivered from one side of the river to the slaughter house on the other side, they were loaded on flat top barges. As they stood on the barges and moved across the river, the early morning fog would often rise off the water and cover the barge bottom. The only thing that could be seen were the pigs "floating" above the water. This gave the appearance, according to the locals, that the pigs were "flying" across the river. This is the reason that so many "flying pig" items can be found in the airport and in other gift shops around Cincinnati.


"When pigs fly" is an idiomatic way of saying that something will never happen. Pigs are heavy animals, without wings, and cannot possibly fly. So "when pigs fly" is a time that will never come. The phrase is used for humorous effect to scoff at someone's intentions to achieve or carry out something which is beyond their previous efforts and accomplishments, especially in politics. There are numerous variations on the theme; when someone with a reputation for failure finally succeeds, onlookers may claim sarcastically to see a flying pig. "Hey look! A flying pig!"

Similar phrases include "when hell freezes over" and the Latin expression "to the Greek calends."

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. Here is one such reference from 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.

Possibly the first occurrence of a pig actually flying occurred in 1909 when the British aviation pioneer Lord Brabazon made the first live air cargo flight with a pig in a basket tied to a wing-strut of his airplane.

In other languages

  • In German "Wenn Schweine fliegen können!" is identical with the English version, although the older proverb "Wenn Schweine Flügel hätten, wäre alles möglich" (if pigs had wings, everything would be possible) is in more common use, often edited on the second part to something impossible, like "if pigs had wings, even your idea might work".
  • In Finnish, the expression is "sitten kun lehmät lentävät" (when cows fly). Also "jos lehmällä olisi siivet, se lentäisi" (if cow had wings, it would fly), implying futile speculations.
  • In Spanish, something that will never happen is often referred to as "cuando las vacas vuelen" ("when cows fly"). Its most common use is in response to an affirmative statement, for example "I saw Mrs. Smith exercising, I swear!" to which the response given would be something like, "Yeah right, and cows fly." Other variations slightly fallen into disuse include "cuando las ranas crien pelo" (when frogs grow hair) and "cuando San Juan agache el dedo" (when Saint John bends his finger). The latter one is a reference to the common depiction of St. John with one or two extended fingers.
  • In French, two phrases can mainly be heard. "Quand les vaches auront des ailes" ("when cows have wings") exists also, but the most common is probably "quand les poules auront des dents" ("when hens have teeth").
  • In Portuguese, the historic expression was "quando a cobra fumar " ("when snakes smoke"). The sentence was used by Getulio Vargas, Brazilian president during World War II, to reaffirm Brazil's neutrality in the conflict: "Snakes will smoke before Brazil enters the war". When Brazil eventually declared war on Nazi Germany and a contingent of about 25000 Brazilians were sent to join Allied forces in the invasion of Italy, the Brazilian force called themselves Cobras Fumantes (literally, Smoking Snakes). They adopted as their symbol a snake smoking a pipe. Since then, the expression reversed meaning in Brazil, as "a cobra vai fumar!" ("snakes will smoke!") now implies that something is about to happen in a furious and destructive way. Brazilians also use the expression "nem que a vaca tussa" that literally means "nor if the cows cought". The origin of this expression is unknow. In Portugal though, the equivalent expression is "when the chickens have teeth" (quando as galinhas tiverem dentes), the origin of such expression is unknown.

In evolutionary history, pigs were known to have lateral projections or stumps, extending from the acromion process of the scapula. It was believed for centuries that unless fattened and devoured the pigs would develop wings and escape their hungry captors.


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