Why Do We Call It a Piggyback Ride?

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 
piggyback ride
Fun as it may sound, "piggyback rides" have nothing to do with riding pigs. HowStuffWorks

It's almost a rite of passage during childhood: climbing atop an older person's back for a piggyback ride around the house or yard. But if you stop to ponder the name of this game — piggyback ride — you're likely to be puzzled. Because people don't typically ride on the backs of pigs, even if they're sturdy, 500-pound (227-kilogram) sows.

The origins of the word "piggyback" stretch back to the mid-16th century, when people carried various goods on their backs or the backs of their animals. The term for this practice back then was "pick pack," since you picked up a pack and put it on your back. As so often is the case with language, "pick pack" morphed over the years. First it became the almost-identical "pick-a-pack," and then "pick-a-back," since the pack picked went on someone's back.

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Things get a little murkier from here. Some say "pick-a-back" — which was the version in use by the 18th century — sounded like "pick-i-back" or "picky back," which eventually became "piggyback." Others say that by the 18th century people were confused by the "pick-a" portion of "pick-a-back," and so changed it to a word they were familiar with that sounded similar: piggy. This is a language process called folk etymology.

While no one knows for sure whether people in Britain or North America were the first to use the term "piggyback," the term "pig-a-back" was used in "A Dialogue in the Devonshire dialect" published in 1837 and "piggy-back" was being used in the U.S. by the 1880s.

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Other Uses of "Piggyback"

Today, "piggyback" is used in a wide variety of contexts, not just for giving kids rides on your back. One of the most popular comes in the field of transportation, where piggybacking means something riding on top of something else, such as cars being transported on a train's flatbed. It's also used in the trucking industry to denote a trailer that is hauling up to four more trucks in a chain. Each truck's front is mounted to a hitch, while the rear wheels touch the ground.

In astrophotography, piggybacking describes the practice of attaching a camera to a telescope, then shooting photos through the camera lens, rather than the telescope. In the music world, drummers often employ cymbal piggybacking by mounting two or more cymbals on the same stand. The extra, smaller cymbals give drummers the opportunity to create additional tones and sounds.

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Health care providers can create intravenous piggybacks, where a smaller, secondary IV bag is connected to the main line. The piggybacked bag is used for intermittent treatments, while the piggyback set-up allows the patient to avoid a second IV site. And piggybacking credit refers to the practice of becoming an authorized user on the credit card account of a person with a good credit rating, which can help you establish credit or up your credit score.

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