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!