You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear

Example in use: “The content of this presentation is terrible and completely useless! No matter how good you make these slides look with all your fancy design, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear!”

Meaning: you’re not able to make something beautiful or valuable out of something ugly or worthless

Possible German equivalent: aus nichts wird nichts

Possible origin: Originating from as long ago as the 16th century, the first recorded appearance of this idiom seems to be in the romantic story “Ephemerides” (1579) which talked about people carrying out a task which could never be successful:

“Seekinge too make a silke purse of a Sowes eare.”

There seems to be no real reason for this expression becoming popular other than the fact that it would, in fact, seem impossible to turn pigskin (a sow is a female pig) into beautiful silk.

However, in 1921, scientists in Massachusetts actually went to the effort of proving the idiom incorrect by producing a silk-like fibre through a complicated and expensive technique of processing pigs’ ears. You might be relieved to know that this experiment was just to prove a point and that such pig-ear-silk is not available in the shops today!

In the mid 20th century, the expression “to make a pig’s ear of something”, which means to completely mess something up or be totally unsuccessful, started to become used in everyday language. It is believed that this expression comes directly from the original “sow’s ear” idiom.

sow / sau


Welcome again to our weekly series that hopes to go behind the scenes of some rather typical English expressions.