OPINION: Last week I wrote about the standard of language and terminology most of us expect, reasonably or otherwise, of our politicians. I wrote then that it takes a high degree of skill to make a witty political comment which gains attention but does not cause offence. That is particularly so if repeating or paraphrasing a comment made by someone else. Knowing the history of the comment is as important as knowing how and where to use it. Many aspiring politicians have failed that test.
Last week The Opportunities Party leader Gareth Morgan proved the point when he appeared to breach that generally accepted standard. When responding to the election of Jacinda Ardern to the leadership of the Labour Party he said, “You can put lipstick on a pig and you’ve still got a pig.”
There was a predictable firestorm of protest, which was probably the intention of the remark but it was far from original and it was clumsily used.
It was used most recently by former US President Barack Obama during his political campaign of 2008. His opponents in the McCain Campaign took offence, claiming the analogy was aimed at their vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. The Obama camp claimed that the expression means that you can dress something up but it doesn’t change what it is. Only since the 1880s, when lipstick appeared in women’s cosmetics, has the concept been added to the maxim.
The incompatibility of pigs and female cosmetics was expressed as early as 1926 by the outspoken and often outrageous editor Charles Lummis, of the Los Angeles Times. When frustrated by the lack of public interest in history he wrote “Most of us know as much of history as a pig does of lipsticks.”
The exact wording of “putting lipstick on a pig” did not appear until much later.
In 1985, the Washington Post quoted a San Francisco radio host on plans for renovating Candlestick Park: “That would be like putting lipstick on a pig.”
In that case the “pig” referred to was clearly Candlestick Park.
A former governor of Texas, in her first budget-writing session in 1991, said, “This is not another one of those deals where you put lipstick on a hog and call it a princess.”
Thereafter the comment became a barb aimed at mostly women and requires a great deal more skill, if it is to be used as an effective humorous political criticism rather than a cause for offence, than in former times.
Many people will recall the maxim that “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear” which seems to have originated in the mid-16th century. Another old saying of that era refers to the ridiculous idea of a dressing up a pig: “A hog in armour is still but a hog” was recorded in 1732 by British physician Thomas Fuller. A Classical 1796 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose explains that “a hog in armour” was an “awkward or mean looking man or woman, finely dressed”. Charles Spurgeon noted another variation in his 1887 compendium of proverbs, The Salt-Cellars: “A hog in a silk waistcoat is still a hog,” meaning, “Circumstances do not alter a man’s nature, nor even his manners.”
When Morgan used the comment last week he clearly had not thought the matter through or considered how bad it would sound. Regardless of what people may think of his policies, that one unfortunate remark will tarnish his party and his image for some time.
While he has tried to pass it off as a reference to the failure of the new Labour leadership to change the real nature of the party, that does not wash. When others skilfully used the maxim, it was applied to political campaigns or inanimate objects, never an individual as Morgan did. That was a serious error of judgment. I have no doubt that if the new Labour Party leader was a belligerent and bewhiskered old journalist like me he would not have made the remark. He may well have made other, even more caustic remarks as there is probably much more to work on but the “lipstick on a pig” comment can only be aimed at women, in this case an individual woman.
Ardern’s response, that she would happily include Morgan in her email list so he would better understand Labour’s policies, was as gracious as his comment was stupid. Only the late David Lange had the ability to deflect a coarse political comment with such refinement, and therein lies the difference between them.