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.
The implausible ascription to Mark Twain occurred in recent decades and is unsupported.
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. Continue reading
- 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) ↩