Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Higgledy-piggledy (by DMcC)

Please give three cheers for the return of my assistant Slang-o-rama-ist, Devyn McC! Devyn is a designer-editor-cartoonist, currently lurking near Portland, OR. Examples of Devyn’s work can be found at this here link and in the Slang-o-Rama archive.


I'm not sure if it's the change in weather, the continued isolation, the new desk (our apartment now officially has 2.5 desks per resident—what can I say, I suppose we're deskaholics), or simply a shift of mood, but lately my brain has been a mess! 

Social media beckons, with glowing apps tempting my unfocused fingers; the fridge hums, heaving under the burden of untasted snacks; an ever-growing pile of unread books teeters next to the bed; my second-and-a-half desk wobbles fiercely, in need of a new screw… It seems that my home, like my brain, has become higgledy-piggledy mayhem.

This is what my brain/desk feels like.

Now there's a thought (and a welcome distraction from my disaster of a deskspace). Whereabouts did higgledy-piggledy come from? And whence? And wherefore? And how many pigs are involved?

Let's start with definitions, as provided by the Collins Dictionary

  1. adverb: in disorder; in jumbled confusion 
  2. adjective: jumbled; confused

 Well, my desk could have told you that much! (If only I could find it under all these papers…) Collins also notes that the term arose around 1590–1600, with origin unknown.

As I rooted for etymological clues, I found one of the earliest recorded uses of higgledy-piggledy in John Florio's 1598 text A Worlde of Wordes, nestled in the definition for alla rappa: "snatchingly, higledi-pigledie, shistingly, rap and run." Entertaining, but alas, not clarifying on the "pig" puzzle.

A (guinea) pig on the desk! That explains the mess…

The Phrase Finder notes that higgledy-piggledy is a reduplicated phrase, which uses partial repetition for amusing effect. (Regular Slang-o-rama readers might recall seeing reduplication mentioned in shilly-shally, fiddle-faddle, argy-bargy, and pish-posh.) The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that H…-P... reduplications—as in higgledy-piggledy and hanky-panky—are quite common, with many dating to the 16th century, which lines up with John Florio's text. However, Phrase Finder, the Wiktionary, and most other dictionaries I scoured claim that it's uncertain whether or not higgledy-piggledy actually has anything at all to do with pigs. (Hogwash, I say!)

On another linguistic note, the Phrase Finder also mentions higgledy-piggledy is unusual among reduplication words, because it uses a full three syllables per word, as well as being a double-dactyl. (No relation to pterodactyls, alas…) A single dactyl is a word or phrase where the first syllable is stressed, followed by two unstressed syllables (HIGG-le-dy); a double-dactyl combines two dactyls (HIGG-le-dy PIGG-le-dy), and is a popular metre form for poems and nursery rhymes.

Speaking of nursery rhymes… In my digging, I came across one by the writer Samuel Griswold Goodrich (aka Peter Barley), who was known for being "an ardent opponent of nursery rhymes [who] nearly succeeded in having them banned, along with fairy tales, from the more expensive nurseries of both England and America" (quoted from user "Wizard of Oz" at In an attempt to besmirch the rhyming craft, Goodrich once declared: "Anybody, even a child, could make one up. Listen! 

 Higglety, pigglety, pop! 

The dog has eaten the mop; 

The pig’s in a hurry, 

The cat’s in a flurry, 

Higglety, pigglety, pop!" 

 Funnily enough? This poetic satire later become the central verse of a truly delightful children's book:

Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life
written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are

This classic features the exploits of Jennie, a small and hairy and intriguingly unsatisfied pooch (based on Sendak's real-life pet). She leaves home with naught but her nose in the air and a basket of snacks under her paw, looking for greener pastures and sweeter pastries elsewhere. And yes, it does involve mishap with a mop.

There's also a short film of the same name that was released in 2010, which I think perfectly captures the peculiarity of the book:


Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life from NFB/marketing on Vimeo.

With that, I feel we've found a good note to end on. I wasn't able to root out any satisfiably swine-related sources for higgledy-piggledy, and my desk isn't any cleaner, but my curiosity has been sated for now.


Camille Minichino said...

Love the little rhyme, pig-related or not!

My desk is a candidate also! In fact my whole office is. I have only 1 desk but 3 screens that qualify.

Thanks for this entertaining and informative piece, Devyn!

Anonymous said...

Devyn, I love this piece and wish there'd been an answer to the important question you raised about how many pigs were involved! LOL!

I thoroughly enjoyed your clever presentation of all these examples and of course, your great humor!
Thanks for an informative story––I was both surprised and delighted!

Nannette Rundle Carroll

Ann Parker said...

Lovely post, dear assistant!... And I was trying to remember a nursery rhyme from my childhood that I thought had higgledy piggledy in it. I finally dredged it up from the depths of memory and chased it down on the internet ( It goes like this:
Higgledy Piggledy,
My black hen,
She lays eggs
For gentlemen;
Sometimes nine,
And sometimes ten,
Higgledy Piggledy,
My black hen!

Mentions a hen but no pig, alas! :-(