Tag Archive | Folk etymology

30-Second Word Whoop: “Piggyback”

When pigs fly … REALLY?! Try when pigs give each other piggyback rides. Because they don’t. They would sooner fly.

As promised, in time for holiday hams, we dissect “piggyback.”

This site doesn’t typically scrape so low as to piggyback on dictionary.com’s word of the day, but recently we slipped. The word was “dovetail,” a verb the urban dictionary calls a synonym for “piggyback.” Today, we’re piggybacking on that thought.

With “piggyback,” used as a verb since 1952, it seems we have a failure to communicate: It’s one of those words that got lost in translation, like piglatin. Most word detective sites say it’s a case of a folk etymology alteration — a corruption — of “pick pack” (1560s) or “pickaback.” The “pick” in this case is a dialectal variant of “pitch,” to throw. The 16th-century pickaback, then, described throwing something on one’s back to carry it, as a beast of burden might. Piggy power wasn’t harnessed in this way, though, because they are snooty and unruly beasts who’d rather pitch themselves into a pitch pit.

What’s interesting is that “piggybacking” today is not so much about work, but play. Most piggybacking observed across the animal spectrum is about parents carrying offspring — giving them rides, whether as a practical method of transportation or as an amusement — the organisms appear fused, but it’s really just strengthening their bond. A synonym is “pooseback” — you can picture the papoose. Like a human caboose.

Another modern definition of piggyback: “to obtain a wireless Internet connection by bringing one’s own computer within the range of another’s wireless connection without that subscriber’s permission or knowledge.” A free ride on the Internet. Executed by low-life swines.

Occasionally you’ll see animals riding piggyback who are actually mating. The better to create more children to give more piggyback rides to.