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Idiomatic Insults: A Pig Is A Pig Whether It Wears Lipstick Or Makeup
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Alhassan Suhuyini
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Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten’ (Chinua Achebe)

‘Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it’ (George Bernard Shaw)

A fool will be a fool whether he goes to school or not. In my 43 years of troubled existence, I have come across a few educated fools who have been able to pass prescribed university examinations to graduate with good degrees. I have seen even bigger fools who have built great careers and risen to the top of their organisations. The other day, I saw a full page advertisement in a national newspaper toasting the larger-than-life accomplishments of one of those fools I know.

Tribal bigotry

Should you feel insulted if you have a university degree and have risen to the top of your career? If you happen to have crossed my path a few times and even had a few squabbles with me in the past, would you readily swap identities with the character described in the above narrative? That will be seeing too much in too little and making a dissention of a doit. If an insult is not meant for you, or if a comment doesn’t sound insulting, don’t hasten to claim it just to paint the assailant blacker than he is.

A pig is a dirty animal, and any reference to the shameless creature, whether in an idiomatic or ‘obtuse’ intellectual context, is not pleasurable. ‘Never wrestle with a pig ’is an idiom which means when somebody who doesn’t care soiling himself with dirt provokes you to a fight, do not grant him a match. He may just enjoy getting into a stupid fight, not to win. Others put it this way: Never argue with a fool; he may succeed in getting you to look as foolish as he is and beat you with experience.

What are Alhassan Suhuyini’s worst faults for not jumping into the ring with a certain Nana Damoah who had thrown the first punch? The Tamale MP simply deployed an old proverb to explain his frustration: “Never wrestle with a pig.” Social media picked the pig in the Suhuyini idiom and painted the animal with tribal lipstick and ethnocentric makeup, making the MP look like a tribe-mad bigot of northern extraction who is careless and insensitive to the pride and humanity of the Akan tribe.


I am friends with both Nana Damoah and Hon. Suhuyini on Facebook, so I followed the trail of insults and tribal abuse that greeted the MP’s innocent expression. With the recent resignation of a deputy minister of agriculture following some distasteful tribal remarks, friends of the two combatants made a veritable cocktail of their own jaundiced arguments about tribes and ethnic sentiments.

A Facebook follower of Damoah wrote: “There is a world of difference between wrestling with pigs in their pen and wrestling with a pig. I am shocked that as a representative of people, you can call an insult an idiomatic expression.”

Another horrified person left this on his wall:” It’s a sad development. I once lived in the north. I don’t know the various tribes up there, but this is what I know: Northerners are kind, peace-loving and awesome people but you [Hon. Suhuyini] are arrogant and full of bigotry. You are a tribal opportunist. The world has no place for people like you.”

There was another: “I refuse to refer to you as Honourable because you are not. Justifying even insulting an individual alone is pathetic. You are a big disgrace to the people of the north. However, on behalf of Akans and Ghanaians, we still love you as a Ghanaian. We are still praying for your sanity to return.”

These comments came after the Hon. MP had offered the following explanation: “Nana Damoah tagged me in a post asking me which of the NDC’s policies is like Free SHS. I ignored him. I put up a post on my wall-an unrelated topic-and Nana Damoah commented saying I hadn’t answered him. This is when I used the age-old expression…wrestle with pigs in their pen. And it has been misconstrued. I think that anyone worth their salt will not make a fuss over the expression. This is cyberbullying.”

Semantics and pragmatics

Unlike award-winning journalist, Mabel Aku Banasseh, Blogger Kwame Gyan and former Presidential Staffer, James Agyenim-Boateng, I would not be quick to play down Suhuyini’s inappropriate deployment of the idiomatic expression in any context. As a student of semantics and pragmatics, I know that ‘The man has a pain in the stomach’ may be anything but a pain in his abdomen. In language use, there is a sense in which the intention behind the use of words may not be the same as its intentionsity.

If Nana Damoah had not been a faceless cyber creature but a reporter quizzing Hon. Suhuyini in a radio interview, would the politician have invoked the metaphor of pigs as a repartee? If Damoah has been a member of the National Peace Council, would Suhuyini have dismissed his demands as an invitation to wrestle with a pig?

In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago makes a careful use of language in answering Senator Brabantio’s persistent inquisition and insults. The respected senator calls Iago “Thou art a villain,” but the latter proceeds to tame the situation and submits: “You are a senator.” It is called decorum. No pigs here. He did not deploy an idiom to dodge the fight.

No reprieve for Suhuyini

While the expression ‘wrestle with a pig’ is an established idiom, it is not popular in the lexicon of public discourse and is hardly used in decent conversation. If I repeatedly asked a colleague a question at my local Toastmasters club, I would be very offended if the speaker treated my submission as an invitation to wrestle with a pig. It is disrespectful whether used as an idiom or dished out as a hurried response to a needless argument on Facebook. A pig is not such a nice animal.

Aye, we should hasten to douse the ethnocentric flames and shame the tribal ‘opportunists’ who have been too quick to dress the Hon. MP with tribal ropes, but we should also muster the compunction to examine the subtext of the idiom and call the pig what it is it. The MP chose to use an ‘idiomatic insult’ to shout down a perceived political opponent. As a Muslim, we expect Hon. Suhuyini to have very little to do with pigs, whether in idiomatic expressions or as a linguistic delicacy.

Source: today

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