piggy bank

If you search the web to determine the etymology of the phrase piggy bank, you'll quickly conclude that there is little disagreement over its origin.

Many web pages give the following story: There was once a kind of clay called pygg. People made containers out of it, and they put money in some of those containers, which became known as pygg jars or pygg banks. Because pygg began to sound like pig, people started making those banks in the shape of pigs, so by the 18th century the term had become pig bank, which later turned into piggy bank.

That's a nicely satisfying story. Only trouble is, I don't believe it.

It sounded too pat to me; it has the feel of folkloric etymology. And as linguists like to say, etymology by sound is not sound etymology. It didn't sound impossible to me, just implausible.

So I did some research. In particular, I checked two dictionaries that I find generally reliable for etymology: Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (MW3) and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Both implied that piggy bank derived straightforwardly from pig.

So I poked around online some more, and I gradually concluded that most of the web pages that provide the pygg story got their info from a Straight Dope column titled What's the origin of the piggy bank? Usually I find Straight Dope pretty reliable, but in this case I think Science Advisory Board member Mac may've been too trusting of the single source that they seem to have consulted, a 1989 book called Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, by Charles Panati.

I used online resources to look at the Panati book. Sure enough, in the chapter titled “At Play,” it gives the pygg story. So I checked Panati's references section for that chapter to see where he got the info. Unfortunately, none of the listed references seems relevant to piggy banks, and the ones that are searchable through Google Books don't seem to mention piggy banks or pygg.

I also looked at a different research path: Panati says pygg was called that during “the Middle Ages,” and Straight Dope talks about the Great Vowel Shift, and various other sources claim that pygg was a Middle English word. (People who pick up this story do seem to like to elaborate on it.) So I checked the online Middle English Dictionary. I can't find any evidence there that pygg was a type of clay; all the cites of pygg in quotations are variant spellings of pig and clearly refer to the animal. Could Panati have meant it was an Old English word or an early Modern English word instead of Middle English? I suppose, but there's no listing for pygg in the online Old English dictionaries I checked, nor in MW3. The OED lists pygg(e) as an obsolete spelling of pig; it doesn't say anything about clay.

Meanwhile, I dropped a note to the Merriam-Webster etymology people asking about this. (I think it's totally awesome that you can ask them etymology questions.) I soon got back a response from Etymology Editor Jim Rader, who wrote, in part:

[...] the story about 18th-century "pygg banks" looks entirely fictional to me. [...] piggy banks [...] appear to have originated in the U.S. not much earlier than the 1890's. Google Books does not turn up any cites of pig bank in the relevant sense before 1902, or of piggy bank before 1909. A search of other data bases might produce something earlier, but these dates seem indicative enough.

(Quoted here with his permission.) I kicked myself for not having thought to check Google Books myself.

So although the pygg story is extremely widespread, I can't find any evidence for it from a reliable source. To recap:

  • I can't find evidence that there was ever a kind of clay called pygg.
  • I can't find evidence that there were things called pig banks before the late 19th century.
  • I can't find evidence that pig banks were named after anything other than their resemblance to pigs.

I'll try and find out more about Panati's source for the story, but at this point I'm inclined to chalk it up to folklore.

If any of you have any further insights or references, let me know.

6 Responses to “piggy bank”

  1. Jed

    A friend points out that the OED lists an entire second meaning/etymology for “pig” (so it’s a homomorph) that clarifies some things: In Scotland and the north of England, pig—also spelled pygg!—has referred to an earthenware container since at least the 1400s.

    So part of the pygg story is not as far off as I thought. But most of the rest of the pygg story seems even more wrong now:

    1. The OED says that the etymology of this meaning of pig is uncertain/unknown. So there’s still no evidence that the earthenware vessel derived from the name for a kind of clay.

    2. The spelling pig for such a vessel goes back to 15C, not 18C. Also, Straight Dope’s whole thing about the Great Vowel Shift is irrelevant, because the word has been at least sometimes spelled pig since at least 1488, not long after the 1440 earliest cite for the spelling pygg.

    3. There’s still no evidence that pig meaning “earthenware jar” is etymologically related to pig bank. In fact, Mr. Rader (the etymology editor I quoted) actually explicitly told me that he knew of no evidence connecting this meaning of pig to “pig bank,” but I left that out of my entry because I misunderstood what he was talking about, having not encountered this meaning of pig.

    So, in short, my concluding points from my entry still stand, and although I can now understand where the pygg story came from, I now believe even more strongly that it’s not true.

  2. Jed

    Another friend suggested doing an advanced Google Books search for “pygg” in the 20th century but before 1989, to try and find possible sources Panati could’ve been drawing from. So I tried that.

    I’ve now found the pygg story in a book called How Did It Begin? by R. Brasch, published in 1965. Amazon reviewers of a more recent edition of that book complain that the author appears to have just made stuff up rather than actually doing any research. And I can’t find any other occurrences of the pygg story before that, searching back to 1800.

    So I now kinda suspect that Brasch found out about the earthenware container called a pygg or pig, assumed that it came from the name for a kind of clay (even though a 1905 dictionary agrees with the OED that the origin of that term is unknown), and made up the rest of the story.

    Of course, it’s also possible that the story was extant folklore long before Brasch, and/or that it came from another book that Google Books doesn’t index. But so far, this seems like a reasonable working hypothesis.

    If anyone has more info, I’d be very interested in hearing it.

  3. Jed

    A note to new visitors: unfortunately, some of the sign-in options don’t seem to be working in this blog. If your preferred sign-in option doesn’t work, feel free to email me at logos-neology2@kith.org. Apologies for the inconvenience.

  4. Jed

    Still more followup info:

    It turns out that a different edition of the OED contains an entry for piggy bank that suggests that it’s likely that there is a connection to that second meaning of pig that I mentioned in my first comment here. But it doesn’t show that connection, just says it’s probable.

    That OED entry also points to pirlie pig, which is a Scottish term for an earthenware money box with a coin slot! However, there’s no indication that such boxes have been made in the shape of pigs, and two twentieth-century quotes refer explicitly to pirlie pigs that are not pig-shaped.

    So it’s possible that Brasch wasn’t stretching quite as much as I thought he was; it’s possible that there are some connections among these various terms. But I have yet to see any direct evidence of such connections.

  5. museumofceramics

    Thank you for your copious research on this subject. I wish to simply alert you to the existence of two mid 19th century piggy banks here at the Museum of Ceramics, in the Pottery Capital of the USA. I will be posting a photo of them on our public facebook page, but would be glad to send you the photo too, if you can use it. Yours is the most thorough coverage of the etymology of piggy in piggy banks, and I really appreciate it. Sincerely,
    Sarah W. Vodrey, Director
    The Museum of Ceramics
    400 East Fifth Street
    East Liverpool, Ohio

  6. Karen

    This brief etymology on “piggy bank” was informative and interesting. Just yesterday, I was searching for authentic Henriot Quimper art and pottery, particularly the design by Alfred Beau (Porquier). In my search I came across some pig piggy banks by Henriot Quimper, which led me to Gert Deelman. He is a Dutch gentleman who has been collecting pig piggy banks for most of his life. Mr. Deelman is in his late 80’s and I did reach out to him; may I suggest you do the same, as he may be able help in your research. History speaks to many of us, if only the world would listen. Keep it up, fascinating. Thanks.
    I will pass this article onto my father. He is a 91, from Great Britain and is incredibly knowledgeable about History. All his life his leisure time has been spent reading History. It is incredible to listen to him share his knowledge.
    All the best in 2024.


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