A Pig In A Pocket

Most people know the meaning of the saying to buy a pig in a poke, of course. It means to buy something without first checking you’re getting what you think you’re paying for. And where does the saying originate? Again, most people can tell you it comes from a few hundred years ago – actually the Middle Ages – when a buyer at a market might be offered a piglet in a sack and if they were foolish enough to buy it without first checking the contents, were likely to find later that the sack contained only a cat, although why it didn’t make a fuss and let people know it was a cat, and a cat that really didn’t want to be in this dratted sack, no one is saying.

(And was it actually a live cat or a dead one? Over to schrodinger for that one…)

If the buyer was wise enough to check, and opened the bag to see what was within, they would then be letting the cat out of the bag.

So, what is a ‘poke’, then? Let’s take the long route to this one, the scenic route… Go back a couple of hundred years when pockets weren’t something let into our clothes, but were more like cloth bags tied around the waist. A kind of medieval bumbag, if you will. Or just a bag on a piece of string tied around the waist if you won’t. This is why in the nursery rhyme we learn that:

‘Lucy Lockett lost her pocket,

Kitty Fisher found it;

Nothing in it, nothing in it,

But the binding round it.

which sounds very odd if you think only of what we understand as pockets nowadays and must confuse huge numbers of children when they hear it.

But the point is that the pocket was a bag, which in French is ‘poche‘ and from which comes the old English word for a large bag, a sack, which is ‘poke‘, with pocket being a diminutive of that: poke-et.

So, let’s back up there. A poke is a large bag, a sack. As mentioned above, I’ve seen dictionaries citing ‘poche‘ as the origin of the word, but a favourite source of mine, a Victorian dictionary of Sussex dialect, when discussing the saying cites the original Anglo Saxon word Pocca, meaning a pouch.

They’re probably both right.

But just to add a little more weight to all this, when hops are picked (at least in Kent and Sussex) they are first measured by the tallyman into a poke (yes, a large sack), then taken to an oast house where they are dried, after which they are shovelled into a hop pocket (a different sized sack) before being taken off for sale to the brewer.

To make lots of lovely beer!

Red Herrings

I had a couple of conversations the other day on detective novels, in which red herrings were mentioned, and it reminded me of something I had been reading a few days before, as well as one verse of an old nursery rhyme, the words recorded in the 1800’s, which goes thus:

The man in the wilderness asked of me
How many strawberries grew in the sea.
I answered him, as I thought good,
As many as red herrings grew in the wood.

Pixabay image

It is supposedly one of the lesser-known nursery rhymes, but I came across it in one of the books my children had when they were small. Possibly, the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. Again, there is an old song occurring along the English east coast called the Red Herring, of which these are the first two verses:

What shall we do with the red herring’s head?
Oh, we’ll make that into feather beds, and all such things,
We’ve red herrings and heads and feather beds, and all such things.

Of all the fish that swim in the sea, red herring it is the fish for me,
And all such things.

What shall we do with the red herring’s eyes?
Oh, we’ll make ’em into puddings and pies, and all such things,
We’ve red herrings and eyes and puddings and pies,
Red herrings and heads and feather beds, and all such things.

There seem to be many versions of this, one of which was collected by Cecil Sharp, well-known as one of the first people to travel around England in the early 1900’s collecting and writing down folk songs, afraid they would become lost as, in a rapidly modernising world, fewer and fewer people now sang them.

Unusually (because I never trust it as a source) I looked at Wikipedia which merely defined a red herring as a distraction, or something misleading. It suggests the term came from a strong smelling smoked kipper which could be dragged across a track to put hounds off of a scent.

And what it reminded me of was that a dictionary of the Sussex Dialect, published in 1875 does not have a particular entry for red herring, yet under ‘White-Herring’ is found the definition: A fresh herring, as distinguished from a dried one, which is called a red-herring. Delving a little deeper, we find references to dried, smoked, herrings – named red herrings – in use to mask the scent of trails both literally and figuratively, in a story published by William Cobbett in 1807 and also a couple of references from the 1780’s. There is apparently a bit of disagreement over where the phrase was used first in that context, but that doesn’t seem relevant here, it’s just interesting to find out that red herrings actually exist, and how they came to assume the role they have in literature and everyday conversation.

Wordy Wednesday 4

There is a tremendous pleasure in using onomatopoeic words in speech. I think that even reading them in a book adds a little extra to the narrative.


Field of buttercups totally unrelated to this post.

For example, a horse clip-clop, clip-clops along a road.

Hissing just has to be a snake, or perhaps a water spray, but if it is the similar sound of frying food it a sizzle.

Splish-splash is the sound of small children stamping in puddles. In France, of course, those children would be going plouf-plouf. In Portuguese, pluft-pluft. German has the verbs platschen and planschen, although I have no idea how they decline. It would be plusk-plusk in Polish vsplesk-vsplesk in Russian. I’m sure you get the idea.

I like that quite a few birds seem to be named after the sounds they make. Thus we have the cuckoo, and the bulbul. In Ladakh, the pigeon is the po-ro, in Russia it is the golb, and pretty much the same in Poland. It is due in danish.

Which may or may not lead us quite conveniently back to last Wednesday’s post, about similar or identical words in different languages. All these similarities might again be the product of languages keeping some words the same after they have evolved and changed into new languages. Or they might arise naturally, since by their very nature they are likely to sound very similar anyway.

Of course, it’s probably a mixture of both these things, and far more complex in any case.

Wordy Wednesday 3

trichy temple 2

Arv’s comments on last week’s Wordy Wednesday post reminded me of some of what stirred my interest in the history of language. Reading about the unexpected discovery in the nineteenth century of the great similarities between words in Sanskrit, the ancient written language of much of the Indian Subcontinent, and words in Ancient Greek and Latin which were a starting point for the study of Linguistics, was something that fascinated me.

The word for ‘father‘, for example, is ‘pita‘ in Sanskrit, and ‘pater‘ in Latin and Greek.

The word for ‘mother‘ is ‘mata‘ in Sanskrit, ‘mater‘ in Latin and ‘meter‘ in Greek.

The word ‘Aryan‘, actually has the meaning of noble or honourable in Sanskrit (arya), which in Latin becomes ‘ariana‘ (holy) and in Ancient Greek ‘areia‘.

And there are other, seemingly more unlikely, connections.

The word for ‘horse‘ is ‘aswa‘ in Sanskrit, and ‘asva‘ in Lithuanian!

Whether the implications behind this are that there was a great mixing of peoples in those days and that different civilisations adopted words from the others, or that all these languages descended from one single, now lost, language in the distant past, can never be known for certain, but the evidence for the latter is extremely strong, especially as the world population was so much smaller then.

Modern research suggests that Sanskrit, spoken by the ancient tribes of India who called themselves ‘Aryans’, entered the Indian subcontinent from the north west, an area both closer to modern day Europe (and its languages) and to the source of the original migration of peoples out of Africa.

Of course, the theory of a single original language puts me in mind of the myth of the Tower of Babel…

My interest was also stirred by a number of similarities I came across when I was travelling or working overseas. One example will suffice:

Cat‘ is ‘chat‘ in French, ‘gato‘ in Spanish and Portuguese ‘katz‘ in German, ‘kot‘ in Polish, ‘kot‘ in Russian and ‘kitta‘ in Arabic.

I think the real significance of these similarities is that when you consider it logically, I don’t suppose that the speakers of all these languages were just waiting for someone to come along and give them a useful word for the furry mouse-catchers they had hanging around their villages and towns. It seems entirely probable that they all contain similar words because all those languages descended from one common source.

And this all leads me to one final thought (deep breath!)…in this ancient, lost, original language of our distant ancestors, we can be fairly certain, for example, that the word for ‘father‘ was something similar to most of its derivatives in use today. As well as the Latin, Greek and Sanskrit examples above, it is ‘padre‘ in Spanish, ‘pere‘ in French, and ‘vater‘ in German.

We may not be able to reconstruct this language (although in the future, who knows?), but we can certainly make a good guess at what a number of its words were, and they were words that most of us are familiar with today.

Wordy Wednesday 2

Coolie – now there is a word that is remarkably offensive; offensive not so much because of what it is, but the implications behind it.

coolie 1

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word thus: unskilled native labourer in eastern countries and gives the word’s origin as perhaps from Kuli, an aboriginal tribe of Gujarat, India.

Hobson-Jobson, the 1886 Anglo-Indian Dictionary, has rather more to say upon the matter.

It gives the spelling as ‘cooly’ and the definition as follows: a hired labourer, or burden-carrier; and, in modern days especially, a labourer induced to emigrate from India, or from China, to labour in the plantations of Mauritius, Reunion, or the West Indies, sometimes under circumstances, especially in French colonies, which have brought the cooly’s condition very near to slavery.

It goes on to give further definitions and details of the word, and then makes several suggestions for its origin. One possibility, agreeing with the Oxford Dictionary, is that it derives from Koli, the name of a caste or race in Western India who frequently carried out these tasks and who, the dictionary reports, had long held a reputation for ‘savagery, filth and general degredation.’ This would make its origin analogous to that of slave, which is presumed to come from the racial term Slav.

But it suggests the waters are rather muddied by a couple of similar words in the Sub-continent: In Southern India a Tamil word Kuli signifying ‘hire’, and Khol is a Tibetan word for slave.

And then there is also a Turkish word kol meaning a slave while, more specifically, kuleh  means ‘a male slave, a bondsman’.

But back to the implication. It is impossible to get away from the colonial undercurrents with this word, as brought out in the Hobson-Jobson definition above. So to use the word to describe a person or persons today, is to call them a servant or slave of a foreign overlord.

Wordy Wednesday 1

Many bloggers post photographs on Wednesday under the heading ‘Wordless Wednesday’. Me? I’m going to write a few posts about words – specifically words in English borrowed from languages of the Indian Subcontinent.

I’m just plain awkward, but you knew that, didn’t you?

I am currently editing the first draft of my novel A Good Place, which is set in a hill station in Northern India. And in that hill station live a number of English who remained behind after Partition.

‘I’m sitting on the veranda of the bungalow in my pyjamas.’ Well, no, no one says that in my book. But if they had, what is the significance of that sentence?

The significance is the number of words borrowed from Indian languages.


Veranda is an Indian word, but coming originally, perhaps, from Persian. The Oxford Dictionary suggests two derivatives, either from the Hindi (varanda) or from the Portuguese (varanda). Digging a little deeper, if I refer to Hobson-Jobson, the Anglo-Indian Dictionary that was published in 1886 and traces pretty well every word or phrase borrowed from the Sub-Continent, I discover a very long entry on this word. It begins by dismissing the possibility of it being derived from the Persian beramada, and goes on to state that it appears to exist independently in both Hindi, and in Portuguese (and Spanish). It then traces the possible routes the word might have taken to reach the English language, before then saying, surprisingly, that it could have its roots in the Persian after all. This seems quite likely to me, since many Persian words made their way to India especially with the Mughals, and it suggests a possible route to the Spanish peninsular when the Islamic armies arrived in the early eighth century.

I tried typing it into Ngram Viewer. This is an online tool that searches through the entire database of books that Google can access online (including ones still under copyright) published since 1800. Looking at the results for all books in English, it tells me it was barely used in 1800, although it does exist, rises steadily to a peak about 1910, and then falls away slowly, although it is still in common usage. Unfortunately Ngram has not been set up to search books in Indian languages, or even Portuguese. I tried Spanish and the pattern was similar, except that after peaking just before 1910 , it dropped sharply, but since then the trend has been upwards. I then noticed something. I had actually looked at the trend in American English. So I then tried British English, and this gave me a rather different pattern; The curve rose gradually until it peaked in the 1950’s and then fell away sharply. Why? I think it must be due to a surge of historical / biographical / nostalgic writing, both fiction and non-fiction, after the British left India.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to go into that sort of detail with other words.

Next, bungalow actually refers to a ‘Bengal style’ house (often with a veranda!) that the British frequently chose to live in.

And pyjamas are loose cotton trousers worn in India which were ‘adapted’ for night wear by Europeans.

Okay, class, lesson over. Be sure to wash your hands before eating your snacks (samosas and pakoras today, of course).