I was dismayed the other day when a BBC news presenter said she had never heard of “a pig in a poke” and asked the interviewee what he meant. But then, I would not know the phrase myself had I not heard it in an American TV cartoon when I was a child.
I remembered the cartoon but had forgotten it was called Hector Heathcote – now thanks to some Googling I have identified that a whole episode was called A Pig in a Poke. So that was indeed where I first heard the phrase.
In the Middle Ages it was common for people to sell a dog or cat for meat and pass it off as something tastier, like a pig. And a poke is a bag or sack, so if you buy a pig in a poke, you buy something concealed, without inspecting it, believing it to be a juicy pig.
That’s the literal meaning but of course it now means agreeing to anything without checking it out first. It’s similar to the saying “to buy a pup” – again referring to dog meat.
It’s interesting that, according to Wikipedia, many languages refer to it as “buying a cat in a sack”, such as Welsh, prynu cath mewn cwd. So this version refers to what you are actually buying, rather than what you think you are buying.
But let’s get back to poke and similar words. I assumed it was related to pocket and pouch. My Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary (1972) says it’s Middle English and the affinities are unknown, but some online sources say it’s from Old North French poque (12th century), probably from an older Germanic language (you find Old English pocca, Middle Dutch poke, Old Norse poki). And it may come from the ancient Indo-European root beu-, an imitative word associated with the idea of “to swell”.
Personally I always thought poke came from the French word poche. Poche is French for a pocket or pouch and pochette is a small pouch, attached to clothing – what we would call in English a pocket.
The spelling seems to be interchangeable between poke and polk and it is a member of the “pokeweed” family. The Latin name is Phytolacca americana and you can read more here.
Although many say poke referred to the sack you put the leaves in when collecting the salad, the excellent website Eat The Weeds says the word poke comes from the Virginia Algonquian (Indian) word pakon or pucone first recorded in 1708.
So there you have it. I wonder if Polk Salad Annie wore a poke bonnet? Again, I thought the name for the bonnet came from it being a bit “baggy”. Here’s how to make your own!
I have also seen it explained by your being able to poke all your hair inside the bonnet. Or I wonder if it’s because it “pokes out” in front? The whole point of it was that it kept the sun off your face but it sometimes went to extremes, as satirised in this cartoon from France, where the hats were called invisibles because you couldn’t see the woman’s face easily…
“Pokes out”? Yes, that’s another meaning of poke, meaning to thrust something forward at or into a different something. I suspect it has its roots in a very old word, as the very saying of the word “poke” makes you thrust forward your mouth in a way suggestive of the meaning, like the Indo-European beu- root mentioned above. My dictionary again says it comes from Middle English word poken but has older Germanic roots.
You can “poke your nose” into someone else’s business and you can meanly “poke fun” at a poor unfortunate.
The word puck used for the hard rubber disc used instead of a ball in ice-hockey comes from the same roots via Irish poc or Scottish Gaelic puc, meaning to poke or push the ball forward in games like hurling.
Poke leads to poker - the pointed iron rod you use to prod the fire. Humans must have been poking fires since prehistoric times! Stiff-backed people can also be “poker-straight”.
Red-hot poker is also the common name for the plant Kniphofia, named after someone called Kniphof – also see my blog post Who would you name a plant after?
Then there is the card game of poker - thought to originate in the American Deep South before 1830. The name may come from Pochspiel, a card game similar to poker. This comes from the German pochen, literally to knock but also to brag about what you have in your hand, as a bluff (some older versions of the game are called brag in English). Alternatively it may come from a French game called poque.
We also use the slang poker face to mean “deadpan”, as when you are bluffing you don’t want to “give the game away”.
According to my dictionary, a poker can also be a bugbear or shape-shifting goblin, although it’s not the usual spelling. According to Wikipedia it’s púca in Irish, pwca in Welsh, bucca in Cornwall and pouque in the Channel Islands.Other spellings include pooka, phouka, phooca or púka.
In English we have pook or puck - as in Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The name may come from a Scandinavian word for “nature spirit”.
The pooka (the spelling I prefer) can be either benevolent or malevolent, beautiful or terrifying, and can assume many forms, often a horse, rabbit, goat, goblin, or dog. Its fur is usually dark. The pooka’s commonest form is as a sleek black horse with a flowing mane and luminous golden eyes.
So much we read as a child stays with us, and I remember one of those educational girls’ annuals giving a guide to the Romany language, with said that a signpost was pookering kosh, which literally means “speaking stick”. Pooker means to ask or say in Romany but at this stage I have no idea if that connects to anything else in this post!
Is there more? Oh yes, polka, a central European dance probably coming from the Czech word polka, meaning a Polish woman. Although there are other theories relating to the Czech word pulka, meaning half, and the fact that there are short half-steps in the dance.
And then there are polka dots. Disappointingly they probably have no meaning other than that the name was chosen at a time when the dance was fashionable. And I had this theory that they were named after those diagrams you have to show you where to put your feet when learning a dance.
This image isn’t quite what I meant, but these polka dots show you where to put your hands and feet in the game of Twister…
And finally a pig in a poke bonnet…