Mark Twain? Robert Heinlein? Paul Dickson? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Teaching a pig to sing is a futile task that aggravates the porcine student according to a popular saying. Luminary Mark Twain and science fiction author Robert Heinlein have received credit for this adage. Would you please determine the accurate ascription and the original context?
Quote Investigator: In 1973 Robert Heinlein published “Time Enough for Love” featuring a main character, Lazarus Long, who appeared in several other novels by the author. Long was a colorful individualist who had been genetically selected to live for centuries. He delivered the adage during a discussion of avarice and deceit. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
I have never swindled a man. At most I kept quiet and let him swindle himself. This does no harm, as a fool cannot be protected from his folly. If you attempt to do so, you will not only arouse his animosity but also you will be attempting to deprive him of whatever benefit he is capable of deriving from experience. Never attempt to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig.
Thus, the context was the difficulty and pointlessness of communicating a lesson that an individual is unwilling or unready to learn.
A different saying with a distinct meaning is sometimes confused with this adage. QI has a separate article on this topic: Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1809 a precursor with a musical instrument appeared in “The Gentleman’s Magazine” where it was described as more than two thousand years old: 2
When the Greeks meant to say that a man was absurdly, foolishly, or improperly employed, they used to say,
“He ploughs the air;
. . .
He is making clothes for fishes;
He is teaching an old woman to dance;
He is teaching a pig to play on a flute;
He catches the wind with a net;
A thematically germane citation appeared in a Waterford, Ireland newspaper in 1866. The task of teaching a pig to sing, dance, and whistle was included in the lyrics of a comical Irish ballad as an example of an absurd enterprise: 3
You may catch old birds with chaff.
Says the Shan van Vocht,
You may coax a cow to laugh,
Says the Shan van Vocht,
You may teach a pig to sing,
To dance a “Hieland fling.”
Or whistle any thing.
Says the Shan van Vocht.
In 1877 the London humor magazine “Punch” published a parody of a popular adventure book titled “A Ride to Khiva” by Frederick Burnaby. The parody was titled “Diary of My Ride to Khiva”, and the author was unidentified. During one satirical episode a “learned pig” was distracted and irritated by a singing mouse: 4
Slight jealousy between the Learned Pig and the Musical Mouse. Whenever the Pig begins to practise with his letters (as he has to do every day), the Musical Mouse begins to whistle and sing, just to put him out, and make him wild. This annoys the Pig, who spells things wrong, and doesn’t answer questions properly. Consequently, I am obliged to beat the Pig. Whereupon he grunts piteously, and spells out, “Cuss that Mouse!” If I could only smooth matters over, and bring them together, it would be a fortune!
In 1889 “The Salt-Cellars: Being a Collection of Proverbs Together with Homely Notes Theron” by Charles Haddon Spurgeon included the following entry: 5
There’s no profit in teaching a pig to play the flute.
Even if the pupil could learn, others would do the business better. There are persons who have no capacity for learning a certain art, and teaching it to them would be lost labour.
In 1900 teaching musical skills to crows or pigs was depicted as a dubious undertaking: 6
Curtiss asked him what he would charge for teaching the crows how to sing melodiously. He burst out laughing. “Why I’d as soon expect to teach a pig to squeal in tune as to teach a crow to sing. They have absolutely no ear at all.”
In 1914 a columnist in “The Pittsburgh Gazette Times” of Pennsylvania presented the goal of teaching a pig to sing opera as an instance of an outlandish impractical objective: 7
I suppose it is possible to teach a pig to sing grand opera—or something that you could pretend he meant for grand opera—if you wanted to take the time and the patience to do it.
In 1973 Robert Heinlein published the modern adage as noted previously:
Never attempt to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig.
In 1978 the saying was printed on an illustrated poster that a college student sent to his mother. No ascription was provided: 8
After my wife visited my son’s room at college, and made the usual motherly remarks about his tidiness, she received a memorable poster for her kitchen bulletin board. The poster displayed a pig sitting comfortably in its native habitat. The message at the bottom of the poster read:
“Never try to teach a pig to sing.
“It wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”
In 1980 Paul Dickson included the saying in a compilation titled “The Official Explanations”. He acknowledged “MBA Magazine” as the source: 9
Business Maxims. Signs, real and imagined, that belong on the walls of the nation’s offices . . .
Never Try to Teach a Pig to Sing; It Wastes Your Time and It Annoys the Pig
By 1986 the saying had been reassigned to a well-known quotation magnet within the pages of a self-help book titled “One Minute Messages”: 10
Mark Twain said, “Don’t try and teach a pig to sing. It’s a waste of your time, and it annoys the pig.”
In 1987 a medical columnist in a Texas newspaper shared a variant using the word “irritate” instead of “annoy”: 11
Avoid giving advice. An East Texas proverb states, “Don’t try to teach a pig to sing, it will irritate the pig and frustrate you.”
In 1997 “The Friars Club Encyclopedia of Jokes” credited Dickson: 12
Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.
The valuable 2012 reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” has an entry on this topic that lists the Heinlein citation. 13
In conclusion, Robert Heinlein should be credited with the statement he published in his novel “Time Enough for Love” in 1973. The linkage to Mark Twain is spurious.
Image Notes: Picture of a piglet from Elcholito at Pixabay. Image of musical notes from Uki_71 at Pixabay. Portrait of Robert A. Heinlein from “Amazing Stories” April-May 1953; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been retouched, resized, and cropped.
(Great thanks to Mededitor and RaPUNzel whose inquiries led QI to create this entry about singing pigs in conjunction with the previous entry about wrestling pigs. Great thanks to David K. Barnhart who noted that “To teach a pig to play on a flute” was in Farmer and Henley’s opus on slang. In addition, thanks to discussants James A. Landau and Peter Reitan.)
Update History: On July 20, 2017 citation dated 1809 and 1889 were added.
- 1974 (Copyright 1973), Time Enough for Love: The Lives of Lazarus Long by Robert A. Heinlein, Section: Prelude II, Quote Page 31, A Berkley Medallion Book: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1809 May, The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Edited by Sylvanus Urban, Letter to Mr. Urban from James Hall, Quote Page 428, Printed by John Nichols and Son, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1866 January 26, The Waterford News, Selected Poetry: New version of the Shan Van Vocht, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Waterford, Waterford, Ireland. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1877 July 7, Punch, Or The London Charivari, Diary of My Ride to Khiva (Communicated by Private Wire–Thrilling Adventures), Quote Page 309, Published at the Office of Punch, Fleet Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1889, The Salt-Cellars: Being a Collection of Proverbs Together with Homely Notes Theron by C. H. Spurgeon (Charles Haddon Spurgeon), Volume 2 of 2: M To Z, Section: Proverbs and Quaint Sayings, Quote Page 252, Passmore and Alabaster, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1900 February 25, The News and Observer, Tales of Yankee Enchantment by Charles Battell Loomis, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Raleigh, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1914 November 19, The Pittsburgh Gazette Times, Some Men Worthless As Husbands by Winifred Black, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1978 May 21, Battle Creek Enquirer and News, The Open Window: Pigs were not meant to jog by Watson Sims (Editor), Quote Page B2, Column 6, Battle Creek, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1980, The Official Explanations by Paul Dickson, Quote Page 27, Delacorte Press, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1986 Copyright, One Minute Messages: an anthology of “old popular” and “new original” thoughts, stories, poetry and prose by Dan Clark with Michael Gale, Section: Why Pigs Can’t Sing, Quote Page 73, Sunrise Publishing. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1987 February 8, New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung, Emotions: Wherever you are, be there—it works by Dr. John I. Walker, Quote Page 12A, Column 2, New Braunfels, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1997, The Friars Club Encyclopedia of Jokes, Compiled by H. Aaron Cohl, Topic: Education, Quote Page 148, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, New York. Distributed by Workman Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 197, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩