On first inspection, the pig would seem a strange choice as a global symbol for good luck, fertility and prosperity.

The pig’s renowned poor personal hygiene and questionable diet don’t make it unloveable, of course. But with the majesty of the world’s menagerie on offer, you might think humans would choose a cute hoarder, such as a squirrel, or a creature with more pleasant attributes, such as a goose, chicken or anything theoretically capable of laying a golden egg.

But, no – the pig remains synonymous with luck and wealth. With February 5 marking the beginning of the Year of the Pig on the Chinese calendar, it’s worth considering how the humble porcine became a symbol of good fortune.

The modern concept of the “piggy bank”, first popularised in the United States in the early 20th century, has a lot to do with this reputation. But even the direct connection between pigs and money is curious. It remains a mystery how grunty little piggies became associated with small, personalised coin receptacles.

The first thing to acknowledge is that people have used “money banks” since ancient times. They were typically made with a coin slot in the top to encourage saving and discourage theft. They were made cheaply, too, because the only way to get the coins was by literally “breaking the bank”.

Many examples of money banks exist today from the ancient East, and they are often shaped like wild boars. The most famous of these terracotta piggy banks are from the Indonesian island of Java and dated from the Majapahit empire that ruled for just over 200 years from 1293. It’s believed the Javanese used these slotted vessels to store Chinese copper coins.

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Like its modern porcine cousin, Indonesia’s wild boar (or “celeng”) is fertile and loves eating and wallowing in mud. Many in the East believe boars were chosen as a symbol of prosperity because of their big round bellies and connection with Earth’s spirits.

The story of how piggy banks became part of Western culture is more muddied. One theory is that Italian Franciscan friar Oderico of Pordenone, perhaps the only Westerner in the Majapahit court in the 14th century, brought the idea back home with him. A more popular story is that piggy banks evolved through a coincidence … and a quirk of the evolving English language.

According to Charles Panati’s 1989 book, The Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, metal was scarce and expensive during the Middle Ages, so Western Europeans made dishes and pots out of an orange clay called “pygg”. “Frugal people then as now saved cash in kitchen pots and jars,” Panati writes. “A ‘pygg jar’ was not yet shaped like a pig. But the name persisted as the clay was forgotten.”

It seems that even though “pygg” would have been pronounced “pug” by locals in the Middle Ages, language conventions changed and it eventually sounded like “pig”. “Potters, not usually etymologists, simply cast the bank in the shape of its common, everyday name,” Panati writes. It’s said that by the 18th century “pygg bank” became “pig bank” and then “piggy bank”.

After being trotted out in Panati’s 1989 book, numerous clickbait stories fed the unproven theory to the hungry internet. Soon the tale of the orange claypot, coin-munching Miss Piggy hogged the limelight and became the established origin story.

Many believe, however, that someone has been telling porkies; that the “pygg” theory is baloney. One etymological site, World Wide Words, says there was no such thing as clay called “pygg” – orange or any other colour. It even suggests the word “pig” was used from about 1450 to describe general earthenware products. “[This might] have been influenced by the animal sense of pig, because a few items, such as ceramic hot-water bottles, are smoothly rounded like a pig’s body and have indeed been called ‘pigs’.”

The site offers an alternative theory. “Scots named their coin banks ‘pirly pigs’, probably from the older Scots [word] ‘pyrl’, to thrust or poke, suggesting the action of inserting a coin,” it says. “The pig refers not to their shape but to the class of earthenware items to which they belonged.”

Whatever the etymology, the large flow of German migrants to the US in the 19th century helped popularise the way we see piggy banks today. “Money boxes in the shape of pigs are known much earlier from [Germany] and elsewhere in continental Europe,” World Wide Words says. “It’s claimed that the shape was suggested through an old idea that the pig was a symbol of fertility and frugality.”

The respect and affection Europeans have for pigs are beyond dispute. Someone who gets lucky in German is still said to have “schwein gehabt” (“got pig!”). Instead of referring to someone being a “lucky duck”, Germans say “glücksschwein” – “lucky pig”. Pig-shaped “good luck” candy is a popular gift in northern Europe. Scandanavians, too, have their own ways of calling lucky people “pigs”.

Pigs hold a special place in Irish hearts, too. In pre-famine Ireland, pigs were called “the gentleman who pays the rent” because raising and selling a pig was the primary means for a family to earn enough money to pay its dues on potato plots. Befitting their elevated status at that time, many pigs slept near children in their own straw bed.

Lucky pigs indeed.

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