Common Meanings of "piggin"


The English word piggin is a regular substantive. In common English it refers to "a small pail, especially a wooden one with one stave longer than the rest serving as a handle" (Shorter Oxford Dictionary). It was sometimes used to mean a milking pail or a vessel to drink out of. By the late 19th century this sort of container was probably no longer in general use in the cities of Britain, but no doubt was still common in rural life. The word was also used in the 20th century in certain industries: Les Piggin states (private correspondence) that it is still used by dyers for the ladle that they measure out pigments with.

At the time of compilation of the English Dialect Dictionary a century ago, the word was stated to be still in general dialectal use in Scotland, Ireland, and the northern and midland counties of England as far south as Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Warwickshire, Shropshire and Herefordshire. The dictionary also noted recorded instances from Hertfordshire, Middlesex, Hampshire and North America. Its compilers believed the word was "nearly obsolete" in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire.

Other informants tell me the word was also in use in Norfolk. No research has been done on whether the term was also used in the West of England, but it would appear that the word was a part of standard English. There is no evidence that its range of use was restricted, but the Dictionary does provide examples of regional differences of meaning, and it is mainly in this aspect that the word can be considered dialectal: whereas the standard meaning indicated a container made of wood with an upright handle, some regional speakers would have used the word for metal or earthenware containers as well, and other regional speakers would have applied the term piggin to containers limited to certain purposes, such as to serve food with, to catch milk from cows with or to feed calves with.

The English Dialect Dictionary suggests a range of meanings of piggin in its principal sense. These comprise: "a small pail or tub, generally of wood, a milking-pail; a lading can; a wooden dish or basin". The Dictionary notes several instances where writers had adopted the less usual spelling piggen. A Dictionary of Hiberno-English by Terence Patrick Dolan states that the English word is apparently the source of the Irish word pigín.

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary records the earliest instance of the word from 1554, but it is undoubtedly older than that: see The Name Piggin for earlier instances. The Oxford's etymologist suggests a derivation from the Middle English word "pig" in the sense of an earthenware pot.

The following tables set out many of the examples cited in the English Dialect Dictionary. At left are the counties where the usage was recorded, at right the printed sources.

Sc.He ... sprawls and spraughles like a swine at the piggin.St. Patrick, (1819) II. 266 (Jam.) [possibly Jamieson, Scottish Dictionary].
Sh.I. Da mate sent wir bairn up ta da tapmast head wi' a tar pigginManson Alm. (1900) 126
se.Sc. The cutty spoon, an' crowdie piggin.DONALDSON Poems (1809) 215
N I Made of hoops and staves, with one stave prolonged so as to form a handle, used for milking in. 
Ant. Larger than a noggin.Ballymena Obs. (1892)
Dwn. She fills a ton quart can an' a lump o' a piggin wi' milk ivery nicht an' mornin'.LYTTLE Ballycuddy (1892) 39
s.Ir. [He] Dipped a little piggin into the pitcher.CROKER Leg. (1862) 102
Tip. Many a piggin uv milk she made me dhrink.KICKHAM Knocknagow, 372
N.Cy.A small wooden cylindrical vessel, made with staves and bound with hoops like a pail 
N.Cy.A little pail or tub with an erect handle. 
Nhb. Containing about a quart (J.H.); Holding near a pint.Gent. Mag. (1794) 16, ed. Gomme
Nhb., Lakel. Cum. A three-quart piggen full o' keale.ANDERSON Ballads (ed. 1808) 98
Cum. A wooden basin for holding porridge..
Wm. Originally a small wooden vessel, used for drinking, etc., made of staves und having one stave longer than the rest to serve as a handle. Later they were turned from solid wood. Small wooden pails for Teeding calves are still called piggins. 
n.Yks. ne.Yks. A small tub or pail with vertical handle, used for milking, and carried when empty under the arm. 
e.Yks. A small wooden drinking vessel; now disused.MARSHALL Rur. Econ. (1788)
e.Yks.With one or two of the staves rising above the others, sometimes pierced with hand-holes, to serve as handles ; used by brewers for lading liquor, and by milkmaids for transferring milk from one receptacle to another. 
w.Yks. A tin receptacle, a deep tin tureen. A ' piggin' as a rule has a handle at the side and not over the mouth as in ordinary pailsL.M.S.
  A vessel. gen. of wood, holding from one to two gallons: M.T.
w.Yks.'Prentices ate their porridge out of piggins. 
w.Yks., Lan. I'll have a penk at her piggin, if I have to pay für th' garthin' on't.WAUGH Chim. Corner (1874) 54, ed. 1879
Lan., n.Lan. ne. Lan.A small wooden vessel made in the manner of a half barrel and having one stave longer than the rest for a handle. 
e.Lan.A vessel in which pigs' food is carried to the stye. 
s Lan. To borrow a piggin of meal.BAMFORD Traveller (1844) 55
I Ma. First came the broth. . . This was served in wooden piggins.CAINE Deemster (1887) 5, ed. 1889
Chs. Der. 1730. Item a Piggin and two Potts to wash ye church, 0. 0. 6. Chwardens' Acc. of Youlgreave Church in Cox Churches (1877) II. 340
Shr. The piggin was formerly used for eating porridge or other 'supping' out of; it gave place to the 'pollinger'. 
Shr.'The cow jumped o'er the moon, The little dog laughed to see sich sport; And the piggin ran after the spoon.' 
Hrf. A wooden quart used for carrying milk or toast and cider to workmen. 
Hrt. We had no mugs to drink from, but wooden bowls in the shape of small tubs, with wooden handles. These were called piggens.WICKHAM Recollections Hertford School (1841) vi
Mid. no citationAuction Cat. Staines (1801) in N. & Q. (1894) 8th S, vi. 329 citationGREEN Virginia Flk-Sp. (1899)

The Dialect Dictionary offers two additional distinct meanings of piggin: one, evidently taken from glossaries of Borders words, is "an earthenware jar or jug". The references are to Dumfriesshire, Northumberland and Westmoreland.

Dmf. Nhb. Wm. Later the term was applied to small jugs and mugs of earthenware. 

The Dialect Dictionary's third definition is "a small iron pot with two ears", for which only a Northumberland reference is given.

Nhb.That supped up the broo and syne– in the pigginRICHARDSON Borderer's Table-bk. (1846) VII. 405


These are defined by this English Dialect Dictionary as "spiced cakes made in small tins".

Cum. no citationGILPIN Ballads (1874) 215
Wm. Her pigginbottoms, her brandy snaps.BOWNESS Studies (1868) 40


Defined in the English Dialect Dictionary as "a calf reared by hand".

Chs.About Knutsford and Mobberley the term 'piggin calf' used to be restricted to a calf reared after the cows go out to grass, when milk becomes too valuable to give to calves, all being required for the cheese-tub. These calves were fed upon fleetings instead of milk, and were the wife's perquisite; consequently she used generally to feed them with cream fleetings, which are extremely rich, and the calf was soon fed all to the value of four or five pounds. 
s.Chs.A calf belonging to the mistress of the house, which is consequently reared upon the drippings and the best of the fleetings. 
Shr.So called from the piggin being used to hold its 'supping'. 


This term is defined by the English Dialect Dictionary as "a stake on which milkpails, buckets, etc are hung".

Chs.It is often formed of a post about five feet high, with side pegs mortised into it, like a hat stand; sometimes it is made of a branching piece of oak, peeled. It is fixed into the ground near the kitchen door, and the milk cans and smaller dairy vessels are hung upon it after being washed and scalded. 


Defined by the English Dialect Dictionary as "a 'piggin'-full".

Chs. Soaping a piggintle.CLOUGH B.Bresskittle (1879) 10
Chs. Oi could lay in a piggintle o' buttermilk, roight off, oim that dry. 


Edmund Burke is quoted as writing: "[I] never dreamt of our poor little English piggen riggen who go about squeaking and grunting quite innocently." The English Dialect Dictionary cites the expression piggin-riggin as an Irish term for "a half-grown boy or girl". In the citation below, the compound is spelled without a hyphen.

Irel. The eight or ten childer were what we call 'piggin riggins', too old for a dumly and too young for bacon.BARRINGTON Sketches (1830) III. xvi


This is a cattleman's term in the United States for a short, narrow rope used to hogtie a calf or steer. Hogtying means tying up three legs with a narrow rope. See for example the Whole Horse Glossary on For photographs showing the use of this rope, see The Franklin Rotary Club Rodeo website quoted below:

U.S. Calf roping is one of rodeo's original events and was adapted from regular ranch work. Several years ago, this event featured "cowboys on cowponies" but today, calf roping has evolved into "athletes on racehorses". The object of calf roping is for the cowboy to catch and tie the calf as quickly as possible. The calf is granted a head start and a cowboy who fails to give the required advantage to the calf is penalized ten seconds. Once the cowboy ropes the calf, he dismounts and runs to the animal. He then wrestles the calf to the ground and ties three legs together with a short rope called a piggin string. The roper then remounts his horse, rides him forward to loosen the tension on the rope and waits five seconds to see if the tie is secure.


In some English dialects, piggin' is an adjective or adverb of intensification. The Times (1970, April 17) considered whether 'one is justified in considering the marginally euphemistic epithet "piggin'" as a swearword'. In recent years the word may have been coming into wider use. This slang usage may possibly have been spread to other parts of England by stand-up comedians as well as the humorous titles of the Piggins figurines. Ted Duckworth's online Dictionary of Slang and Colloquialisms Used in the U.K. describes the force of "piggin'" as being "similar to 'pissing', but without being as offensive" and gives this as an example:

  "I hate piggin' ignorant customers who treat you like scum." DUCKWORTH Dictionary of Slang and Colloquialisms Used in the U.K.

A contributor to the mailing list, Gail Stokes, added this milder gloss 2002-03-06 in describing regional terms of Cheshire: "My father never swore or cursed at all. He substituted all swear words with the rather expressive 'pigging'." She added to me: "I suppose it might have been quite a forceful word in nice circles - but most of my family used the more vulgar 'bloody' to denote swearing."

This meaning of "piggin'" led to laughter in an church in Holyhead in Wales, according to the following story posted 2005-08-30 on the Worship Released website: "We were in the middle of a prayer meeting. We were praying for healing for different people, when one of the deacons prayed for Mr Piggin who is recovering from an illness. The deacon continued to pray: "And Lord, we pray for the rest of the Piggin family! Amen." There were a few giggles and stifled laughter going on, I can tell you!"

This word appears to be favoured because of its explosive sound when spoken sharply, and its association with the word "pig". We have not been able to obtain any evidence of any intrinsic meaning let alone any obscene connotations it may have. The form ending in N rather than NG may have originally been limited to dialects that generally use that pronunciation with a participle.


The English Dialect Dictionary additionally lists the plural term piggins as an apparently obsolete term in Devonshire for certain timbers of a building.

Dev.The joists to which the planching is fixed; the `sleepers' or pieces on which the boards of the lower floor are fixed. Horae Subsecivae (1777) 327. GROSE (1790) MS. add. (M.)


For the bibliographic description below of the English Dialect Dictionary I am indebted to Stephen R. Reimer's Manuscript Studies website. The English Dialect Dictionary, Being the Complete Vocabulary of All Dialect Words Still in Use or Known to Have Been in Use During the Last Two Hundred Years; Founded on the Publications of the English Dialect Society and on a Large Amount of Material Never Before Printed. Ed. Joseph Wright. 6 vols. London: H. Frowde, 1898-1905. [Wright attempted to cover both written and spoken dialectal terms, and to include all such terms "still in use, or known to have been in use during the last two hundred years." The entries include notes on the geographical areas in which the term is used, on local peculiarities of meaning, and on etymologies."]

© Jean-Baptiste Piggin 2000-2009
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