A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of pig Latin?

June 1, 2004

Dear Straight Dope:

What is the origin of pig Latin?

First, a test -

Which of the following is NOT pig Latin?

  1. Hammus Alabamus
  2. Hoggibus, Piggibus
  3. Ixnay
  4. Amscray
  5. Ofay
  6. Igpay Atinlay
  7. Wig-ge you-ge go-ge
  8. "dunghill for unguem"

And the answer is (drumroll) ... #5, ofay. But that will have to be another column

Pig Latin is thought of by most Americans as a secret language for kids. I say "most Americans" because the game never seemed to catch on in British countries. They were too busy developing "rhyming slang," a game I have yet to figure out. In pig Latin, one takes a word, i.e., bibliophage, moves the first letter to the end of the word, and adds an "ay" sound. So, we get ibliophagebay. The most famous examples of this exercise are the words "ixnay" and "amscray" produced from "nix" and "scram" - so famous that today they're considered slang words in themselves. There are some additional rules about what to do when the word starts with a vowel, but I'll leave that for the reader. As I tell my kids, I'm NOT doing your homework here.

The formalized modern game has its roots in centuries long past and may even predate Shakespeare. In Love's Labor's Lost (act V, scene 1), we find the following exchange:

Costard: Go to; thou hast it ad dungill, at the fingers' ends, as they say.
Holofernes: O, I smell false Latine; dunghill for unguem.

This is a play on a Latin proverb - I'll spare you the details. The point is that nonsensical multilingual wordplay was well known in Shakespeare's time - check out the rest of the scene - and now it had a name, false Latin, which had become "dog Latin" by the 18th century and "dog Greek" not long afterwards. Edgar Allen Poe used the term "pig Greek" in 1844. All of these terms were meant to signify "bad" Latin or things that sounded like Latin but weren't. At first the idea was simply to amuse, using puns, Latin endings appended to English roots, and so on. The first instance I can find of a term describing a language purposely modified to confuse the listener is in Walter Scott's Kennilworth (1821), where a character says, "A very learned man ... and can vent Greek and Hebrew as fast as I can 'thieves' Latin.'" The expression referred to the argot of the underworld, sometimes used in conversation to confuse outsiders. In the mid-19th/early 20th century it also meant the lingo used in carnivals and circuses to prevent a "mark" from understanding what the carnies were saying.

Kids developed their own secret code, which by 1866 was called "hog-Latin." In The Galaxy of that year we find the following:

He adds as many new letters as the boys in their "hog latin," which is made use of to mystify eavesdroppers. A boy asking a friend to go with him says, "Wig-ge you-ge go-ge wig-ge me-ge?"

The other, replying in the negative says, "Noge, Ige woge."

The term "pig Latin" appeared in the same decade and seems to have gradually vanquished other claimants (double Dutch, etc.) as the term of choice. The modern system of dropping the first letter, etc., is almost certainly an invention of the 20th century. No, Shirley Ellis didn't invent it in her 1965 hit "The Name Game" ("Shirley, Shirley bo Birley Bonana fanna fo Firley," etc.).

Proving that silliness knows no bounds, one can find on the Internet today a translation of the Bible into pig Latin. Google even has a pig Latin translator in its language tools.

Ankindmay isway oomeday!


The Oxford English Dictionary plus Douglas Wilson, a great finder of cites over at the American Dialect Society. His thoughtful, erudite contributions are greatly appreciated.

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