|Iroquois Smelter, Chicago|
Came across this one in Finnegans Wake the other night, but it's not one of his famous "portmanteau" (ie, made up words that combine and compress several ideas into one word) words. I've heard it many times and in many places, but never really thought much about it. It's a kind of iron. Duh. When you're reading along in a text and you come across the term pig iron, if you're lazy like me, you just substitute "some weird kind of iron" and keep going. But if you stop and look at it, as Joyce makes you do, repeatedly, you start to wonder a bit more about what you're looking at.
Does it really have anything to do with pigs? I'm going to guess not, but like I say, I really don't know.
Well, it has something to do with pigs. Pig iron is the result of an intermediary process in the smelting of iron. I don't know that I want to dig into the whole iron smelting process just now, but basically when you first smelt iron ore, you are left with pig iron, which, before further refining, has a lot of carbon in it. This makes it brittle and largely unusable.
The reason for the pig part, though, is not a denigration of pigs. The way "pig" came into the term apparently is that the shape of the mold was originally a branched structure, with the ingots at right angles to a central runner lying in sand. When the iron had cooled it was easy to break off the ingots from the thinner central bar. The association was made to a sow nursing a litter of piglets.
Pig iron came to take on a slang meaning of cheap iron, as in cheap guns, for example. But this is just slang, not the real deal.
Been awhile since we had our musical example here, and who better than Leadbelly to show us the way? Don't know what "Rock Island Line" has to do the price of pig iron?
Wait for it.