Why Do We Call it Piggyback When We Carry Someone On Our Back?

Lyda asks: Why is carrying someone on your back called a “piggy back ride”?

piggyback-snailFunny how not one of us can likely name a time they have ever seen a pig carry anything on its back; yet we rarely question the term “piggyback”. How could this be? As with many English terms, we have to think back…way back, and usually over time we find a logical progression that allows us to come to a better understanding of a term commonly used that otherwise seems most illogical.

To understand the logic behind the term “piggyback”, we must go back as far as the year 1564 or thereabouts. Back in the 16th century, goods were transported in packs that people carried on theirs or animals backs. The term used to describe this was “pick pack” because you would pick up a pack in order to carry it on your back. Seems logical enough so far right? But how does the “omnivorous domesticated hoofed mammal with sparse bristly hair and a flat snout for rooting in the soil” fit in here?

“Pick pack” eventually became “pick-a-pack” which still makes sense – pick a pack and carry it on your back. Eventually, because an individual was picking a pack to carry on his or her back, the term “pick-a-pack” became “pick-a-back”.

Turns out, though, that the insertion of the “a” caused a problem and ultimately paved the way for the original phrase “pick pack” to become “piggyback”. How? Due to the pronunciation of the term as a whole, “pick-a-pack” often sounded like “pick -i-back” which sounded like “picky back”. Of course “picky back” made no sense at all to those who didn’t understand the progression of the phrase, which was pretty much everyone by the 18th and 19th centuries.  This ultimately gave rise to the term “piggyback” around this time for people carrying a pack on their back and by the 1930s, the definition further progressed to describe riding on someone’s back and shoulders.

But why “pig” since we never ride on the back of one, except perhaps in certain country fairs where kids occasionally do just this? Well, it was the only animal that sounded like “picky” and “pickyback” made no sense so surely “picky” was really supposed to be “piggy”, right? Thus, folk etymology won the day in this case. That’s how English works sometimes.  Seriously, study the evolution of language and words for a little while and it’s amazing how often similar stories can be found.  A great additional example of this sort of seemingly bizarre progression where the end is so far from the beginning that it makes no sense how we got there until pointed out can be found in how “Dick” came to be short for “Richard”.  Long story short: Richard -> Ric -> Rick, gave rise to the rhyming nickname “Dick” around the 13th century.  For the fascinating full details, click the preceding link.

Thanks for reading this article!  If you liked it and the Bonus Facts below, please share it.  Also, here are a few more you might enjoy:

Bonus Facts:

  • Today the term “piggyback” is used in many different contexts, all meaning to ride or use an already existing system:
    • Piggybacking is a technique used in astrophotogrophy. It involves attaching your camera on your telescope and shooting through a camera lens while the scope tracks the stars.
    • Piggybacking in transportation refers to something that is riding on the back of something else such as cars on the flatbed of a train.
    • Piggybacking in security refers to when someone who has authorized access to a restricted area or through a checkpoint, intentionally or unintentionally (although in this case it is more often referred to as “tailgating”) allows an unauthorized person access into these areas or through the checkpoints by having them tag along.
    • Smash cymbal piggybacking refers to mounting a cymbal on top of an already stand-mounted cymbal.
    • In terms of credit ratings, piggybacking refers to someone with bad credit using the seasoned trade line of an unrelated third party in order to improve their credit rating.
    • In terms of medication, piggybacking refers to taking two different yet compatible drugs that provide the same function, (for example ibuprofen & paracetamol both provide pain relief) at staggered intervals to ensure that they have a constant effect.
    • When referring to piggybacking in terms of internet use, it means accessing the internet with your device through someone else’s network.
    • Piggybacking in intravenous therapy refers to a second infusion set on the same line.
  • The Guiness World Record for the Fastest Mile Piggyback Race is held by Ashrita Furman (USA) who carried Bipin Larkin. He completed the race in 12 minutes and 47 seconds at St. Johns University in New York, New York, USA, on 4 July 2010.
  • The Guiness World Record for the Largest Piggyback Race is held by Bishop England High School (USA), located in Charleston, South Carolina, USA. On October 7, 2011, as part of the school’s Homecoming festivities, 388 participants competed in the race. Two pairs failed to complete the race and were deducted from the total.
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  • Can You also tell about the origin of ‘Piggybank’

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Rishabh: Great question! I’ll add it to the to-do list. Thanks!

    • In English, the word “pig” can refer to two things: the animal and earthenware, which is used to make crockery. People often saved money in kitchen pots and jars made of pig, called “pig jars”. By the 18th century, the term “pig jar” had evolved to “pig bank”.

  • Last week I watched some feral pigs escape from a trapping pen by running up the backs of other pigs huddled against the sides and corners of the pen to a height where the steel bars were far enough apart to squeeze through. I was informed by another farmer with a lot of experience with pigs that they were well known for this behaviour, and that this was where the term ‘to piggyback’ came from. It sounded plausible at the time, having witnessed the behaviour. I have also had to carry pig carcasses on my back ‘pig-a-back’ style as (by far) the most efficient way to lift and carry them manually. I suspect that there may be a ‘pig’ origin to the word, just as much as a ‘pick’ origin, at least in terms of non-literary usage amongst people who handle pigs.

    • Yours, Steven, seems more plausible. But when you realize every word ever is just made up, you’ll think again.

  • The term pick in “pick pack” does not involve picking up a package. Pick is a medieval term for pitch which referred to a load that was pitched on to a person’s back for carrying.