Ar Dhroim (Ar Muin) na Muice: Not Quite The Same as “High on the Hog” Posted by on May 5, 2012 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

You might remember a passing reference in the last blog to “dromanna muc” (backs of pigs) in the discussion of caint mheafarach (fhíortha) in general.  The only real reason I pluralized it was to emphasize the point that lots of people use lots of figurative speech in lots of situations.  So over the years, lots of dromanna (backs) of lots of figurative muca (pigs) have been alluded to.  In any actual instance of use, the phrase would probably be in the singular, as in: Tá mé ar dhroim na muice,  I’m on the pig’s back, lit. on (the) back of the pig, with “ar muin na muice” as another version.

Why exactly being “on the back of the pig” should mean that things are going quite well for you is still a bit of a mystery.  There are lots of positive associations with pigs though, aside from their general intelligence, and according to various news clips I’ve seen, their ability to save their owners from fire or drowning.  Why is the “piggy bank” the most stereotypical image of a child’s savings bank?  Why is pork and sauerkraut the most popular meal amongst the Pennsylvania Germans (and perhaps other groups as well) for New Year’s Day?  Apparently both of these symbolize the pig’s impressive ability to put on weight, to literally swell from swill.  We hope our pennies will grow in value in the savings bank (not that toy banks offer interest, although come to think of it, with microchips these days, maybe there could be a cyber-tally and …).  The New Year’s pork dish symbolizes the prosperity and growth we hope to experience in the coming year.

Now, personally, I applaud the porcine hero of Judy B. Goodenough’s song, “Tails and Trotters,” about the “Little Piggy” who struck out on his on and escaped the foodie fate of his siblings.  You might remember the Mama pig in the song, who mourned “all my sons and all my daughters, are hocks and hams and tails and trotters.”  Although I’m not a feoilseántóir as such, I feel bad hearing how quickly and cost-effectively pigs put on weight, so we’re all the more likely to slaughter them for consumption.  Doesn’t quite seem féaráilte!

Anyway, it wouldn’t hurt to look a little more closely at the different forms of our keywords for “ar dhroim na muice” and its alternate version, “ar muin na muice.”

droim, back (n, as in back of the human body, etc., also ridge, as in many place names, like Drumcondra)

an droim, the back

droma, of a back (eite droma, dorsal fin, lit. fin of back)

an droma, of the back (caol an droma, the small of the back, aka an caoldroim, btw)

dromanna, backs, also “of backs”

na dromanna, the backs

na ndromanna, of the backs

Another word for “back” is “muin,” so we have:

an mhuin, the back (usually upper; usually for animals, not people)

muine, of a back; na muine, of the back

muiní, backs, also “of backs”; na muiní, the backs, na muiní, of the backs

And for “muc” (pig) we have:

an mhuc, the pig

muice, of a pig (bolgach muice, swine-pox)

na muice, of the pig (Claí na Muice Duibhe, the Black Pig’s Dyke, lit. the Dyke of the Black Pig, in Irish word order)

muca, pigs (muca ar dhath seachas bán uile chun críocha síolrúcháin, pigs of a color other than all white for breeding purposes)

na muca, the pigs (na muca mara, the porpoises, lit. the pigs of the sea)

muc, of pigs (An Coimisiún Muc is Bagúin, Pigs and Bacon Commission, and, almost as intriguing as the former “Welsh Plant Breeding Station’ (which has been renamed since I first encountered it, near Aberystwyth), there is “Stáisiún Tástála Pór Muc,” Pig Progeny Station, lit. station of testing of breeds of pigs; “plant” btw is the Welsh word for “children” so, when read hybridly (i.e. bilingually), the Welsh agricultural research center was eye-catching, to say the least!  As for this Irish station, “tástáil” can also mean “tasting” as well as “testing” … food for thought!

na muc, of the pigs (NB: the final “-a” of “muca” gets dropped; cuid na muc, swill)

One caveat about this phrase.  The first two results of my Google search brought up examples with some pretty glaring grammatical errors.  I’ll not name names, but I’ll give you a heads-up about the mistakes, so you don’t fall into the same trap.  If you try Googling the incorrect phrases, you’ll probably find the source.  Unless someone corrects those postings, in which case this will be a mere, but hopefully useful, exercise.

First (so apparently a popular hit), I saw “ar dhroim muice.”  Over-fadaization (if such a word exists)!  It’s just “na” here, not “.”  Not “,” nope, naw, no way!  “,” with a long “a” has several meanings in Irish (such as “than,” “but,” “nor/or,” and various uses as a verbal particle) but none of those fit here.  All those, ”ná-anna,” by the way, are not ranges of meaning for one “” but completely different words, homophones, words that happen to look and sound alike.

For our phrase, we need “na muice,” which means “of the pig.”  Not that “na” actually means “of.”  No way!  It’s a form of the definite article (“the”) which incorporates the idea of “of” when used with the tuiseal ginideach (muice instead of just muc).

To top things off, a commenter writing in to the “ná muice” perp asked another misleading question, “Cá bhfuil na muice?”  <osna, osna, osna> (those are my sighs, not those of duine scríofa na nótaí tráchta).  Well-intended, no doubt, but one rule of thumb for Irish, and any other inflected language, is that one typically can’t pluck an element out of one sentence and plump it down in the middle another sentence as is.  The very nature of inflection (in grammar) is that endings change, all the time.  Ábhar ollbhlag eile!  I assume the commenter wanted to ask, “Where is the pig?”  That would be “Cá bhfuil an mhuc?” [say “un wook,” with the “wook” part more or less as in Wookiee].  That “Wookiee” comparison doesn’t apply if you’re a Munster Irish speaker, since they’d likely pronounce “the pig” as “un vook” and, fad m’eolais, “wookiee” never has an initial “v” sound, even when Munster Irish speakers discuss Star Wars.

The commenter might possibly have intended to ask “Where are the pigs?” since that would retain the “na” (now simply to go with a plural subject, na muca).  That would be, “Cá bhfuil na muca?”  But I doubt they meant plural, since the “pig’s back” phrase seems to refer to one perpetually lucky, everlasting pig, with space for all on its generous back.

Bhuel sin sin, but there’s more.  Next Google hit?

Please keep in mind that I’m glad to see people using the phrases “ar dhroim na muice” and “ar muin na muice” and commenting on them.  I just wish the grammar was a little more spot-on, especially since the population of Irish language learners far outnumbers those who are actually fluent in the language.

One of the curious features of  Google searches is that even when you type in the grammatically correct phrase, you may get grammatically incorrect phrases as the result.  Hmm.  The whys and wherefores of that are definitely out of my bailiwick.

So the second disconcerting example was, hmmm, I’m going to split it up so it’s not quite so jarring.  First, it uses the phrase: “ar an dhroim.”  Two problems here.  First, “d” resists lenition after “an” (the so-called DNTLS rule).  Second, the “an” is actually superfluous, as we’ll see from the rest of the phrase, which is “na muice.”  That part is correct, but the definite article “na” in that part of the phrase negates the need for a definite article in the first part of the phrase.  Remember phrases like “cóta an chailín” (the coat of the girl) or “hata na girsí (the hat of the girl) or “ruball na muice” (the tail of the pig).  One definite article serves to make the whole phrase definite.  You noticed how the English translation used the word “the” twice” for each phrase, right?  This usage extends to prepositional phrases like “ar chóta an chailín,” “ar hata na girsí,” and “i ruball na muice,” as in the following: “Tá dath oráiste ar chóta an chailín,” “Tá ribín ar hata na girsí,” and “Tá caisirnín (cor) i ruball na muice.”

While the typically American phrase “high on the hog” may seem to be related to “ar dhroim na muice,” it’s really somewhat different in meaning.  “High on the hog” means really affluent or living luxuriously, almost or actually beyond one’s means.  “On the pig’s back” implies more that things are going well, as opposed to poorly, but doesn’t suggest extreme wealth, at least as I understand it.  One well-established “phrase origin” site,, soundly knocks the “high hog/pig’s back” connection theory.  Still, one wonders!

Anyway, here’s hoping all of today’s readers are either “ar muin na muice” or  “ar dhroim na muice.”  And hoping the poor pig isn’t too worn out giving all these haighdeánna (piggyback rides)!  SGF, Róislín

P.S. In case you have some need of the word “swill” in Irish, there are a couple of choices.  Straightforwardly, we have “cuid na muc” (the share of the pigs).  Lovely to the ear, but a bit obscurely, we have “scudalach,” a word almost evokes the sound of the grunting of happy pigs.  It’s probably related to “scodal” (thin porridge).  And, although it’s a semantic stretch, there is “swill” in terms of brewing, which is “grúdarlach,” neatly connected to the slew of other brew words, “grúdaire,” “grúdlann,” etc.  It can also mean “slops” and “inferior ale.”

P.S.2 (1 Mí na Nollag 2017) And, for “swill,” MiseÁine contributed “slab” and “slabar” below, per An Domhnallach.  

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  1. Deasún:

    Mise agus tusa agus ruball na muice agus… Bacach Shíle Andaí !! haha

    • róislín:

      @Deasún Rubaill na muc abü!

      Ach an leagan nua: Hagrid ‘gus Dudley ‘gus ruball na muice! Cad a tharla don ruball sin tar éis na hobráide, meas tú, a Dheasúin? Leasaithe i bpróca d’fhormaildéad áit éigin? Agus céard a bheadh scríofa air mar lipéad (ar phár, ar ndóigh)? “Ruball muice Dudley Dursley,” nó “Ruball Dudley Dursley, muc buachalla”?

  2. Mise Áine:

    Maidir leis an ‘swill’ sin, a Róislín, chuir mé ceist ar an Dómhnallach, agus ‘slab’ nó ‘slabar’ an focal atá ina cuimhne aici.

    • róislín:

      @Mise Áine Feicim nár fhreagair mé thú, a Mise Áine. TBO! Tá sin suimiúil, go raibh maith agat. Ábhar blag eile an ‘swill,’ b’fhéidir. It’d be a swell topic!

  3. Kevin Smith:

    Not wishing to be rude as I’ve not a prayer of coaxing a fada out of my smart phone.Your observation about the lack of fluency of Irish language students hits home.After three years of classes with a gifted teacher, Johanna Mackey, and a lot of work I had made scant progress, so I chucked it.Maybe when I retire I will have another go.Very interesting blog, though.Thank Kevin Smith

    • róislín:

      @Kevin Smith A Chaoimhín, a chara, Thanks for writing in. You’re right that the cell phone is one anti-dote to over-fadaization.I hope you can resume your study of Irish at some point or at least keep reading the blog. Thanks – R

  4. jacqueline:

    Is there a possibility that the phrase “on the pig’s back” may be a remnant of old religious belief? Pigs were sacred to the Goddess in several cultures. I’m thinking particularly of Vanadis, of Scandinavia, who rides the boar Gullinbursti. I’ve seen a picture of a Venus sculpture from ancient pagan Italy, similarly riding on boar-back.

    • róislín:

      @jacqueline Hmmm, a very interesting idea, but unfortunately I don’t really have an answer for you. I haven’t heard that proposal before. I had also raised the question of the phrase “high on the hog,” and still wonder about that, but again, I don’t know anything any more specific. Perhaps some other reader here has some more insight. Thanks for writing in.

  5. Sam:

    Go raibh maith agat

    • róislín:

      @Sam Tá áthas orm gur bhain tú sult as, a Sam. GRMA as scríobh isteach.

  6. Ray Ó Ceallaigh.:

    An caoi chun ghaeilge a fhoghlaim ná í a la bhairt.Breathnaigh ar : maidineacha Freastal ar pop up Gaeltacht.

  7. Fergal:

    If droim is lenited “ar dhroim….” why is muin not lenited? What’s wrong with “Tá tú ar mhuin na muice”?

    • róislín:

      @Fergal Please check out this blogpost for a response:

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