Pig in a poke

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For other uses, see Pig in a poke (disambiguation).

The idioms pig in a poke and sell a pup (or buy a pup) refer to a confidence trick originating in the Late Middle Ages, when meat was scarce, but cats and dogs (puppies) were not.[1][2][3] The idiom pig in a poke can also simply refer to someone buying a low-quality pig in a bag because he or she did not carefully check what was in the bag.[4]

Etymology[edit]

The scheme entailed the sale of a suckling pig in a poke (bag). The bag would actually contain a cat or dog (substantially less valuable as a source of meat), which was sold to the victim in an unopened bag. The French idiom acheter (un) chat en poche (to buy a cat in a bag) refers to an actual sale of this nature, as do many European equivalents, while the English expression refers to the appearance of the trick.[5]

Relation to other idioms and expressions[edit]

The English colloquialisms such as turn out to be a pig in a poke or buy a pig in a poke mean that something is sold or bought without the buyer knowing its true nature or value, especially when buying without inspecting the item beforehand. The phrase can also be applied to accepting an idea or plan without a full understanding of its basis. Similar expressions exist in other European languages, most of them referring to the purchase of a cat in a bag.

The advice being given is 'don't buy a pig until you have seen it'. This is enshrined in British commercial law as 'caveat emptor'—Latin for 'let the buyer beware'. This remains the guiding principle of commerce in many countries and, in essence, supports the view that if you buy something you take responsibility to make sure it is what you intended to buy.

A poke is a sack or bag. It has a French origin as 'poque' and, like several other French words, its diminutive is formed by adding 'ette' or 'et'—hence 'pocket' began life with the meaning 'small bag'. Poke is still in use in several English-speaking countries, notably Scotland and the USA, and describes just the sort of bag that would be useful for carrying a piglet to market.

A pig that's in a poke might turn out to be no pig at all. If a merchant tried to cheat by substituting a lower value animal, the trick could be uncovered by letting the cat out of the bag. Many other European languages have a version of this phrase—most of them translating into English as a warning not to 'buy a cat in a bag'. The advice has stood the test of time and people have been repeating it in one form or the other for approximately five hundred years, maybe longer.

Language Phrase Translation
Arabic يشتري سمك في ماء to buy fish in water
Bulgarian да купиш котка в торба to buy a cat in a bag
Catalan Donar/Prendre gat per llebre to give/to take cat instead of hare
Chinese 挂羊头卖狗肉 sell dog meat as mutton
Croatian kupiti mačka u vreći to buy a cat in a sack
Czech koupit zajíce v pytli to buy a hare in a sack
Danish at købe katten i sækken to buy the cat in the sack
Dutch een kat in de zak kopen to buy a cat in the sack
Estonian ostma põrsast kotis to buy a piglet in a sack
French acheter un chat dans un sac
acheter chat en poche
to buy a cat in a bag
Finnish ostaa sika säkissä to buy a pig in a sack
German Die Katze im Sack kaufen to buy the cat in the sack
Greek αγοράζω γουρούνι στο σακκί to buy a pig in a sack
Hebrew חתול בשק cat in a sack
Hungarian zsákbamacska cat in a sack
Icelandic að kaupa köttinn í sekknum to buy the cat in the sack
Indonesian kucing dalam karung cat in a sack
Italian comprare a scatola chiusa to buy in a sealed box
Irish ceannaigh muc i mála buying a pig in a bag
Latvian pirkt kaķi maisā to buy a cat in a sack
Lithuanian pirkti katę maiše to buy a cat in a sack
Luxembourgish d'Kaz am Sak kafen to buy the cat in a sack
Macedonian да купиш мачка во вреќа to buy the cat in the sack
Maltese xtara l-ħut fil-baħar to buy fish in the sea
Norwegian kjøpe katta i sekken to buy the cat in the sack
Polish kupić kota w worku to buy a cat in a sack
Portuguese comprar gato por lebre to buy a cat instead of a hare
Romanian cumperi mâța în sac to buy the cat in the bag
Russian купить кота в мешке to buy a cat in a sack
Spanish dar gato por liebre to give a cat instead of a hare
Spanish hay gato encerrado there is a cat shut inside
Serbian купити мачку у џаку to buy a cat in a sack
Slovak kúpiť mačku vo vreci to buy a cat in a sack
Slovene kupiti mačka v žaklju to buy a cat in a sack
Zulu ukuthenga ingulube esesakeni to buy a pig in a sack
Swedish köpa grisen i säcken to buy the pig in the sack
Welsh prynu cath mewn cwd to buy a cat in a bag

This trick also appears to be the origin of the expression "let the cat out of the bag",[6] meaning to reveal that which is secret (if the would-be buyer opened the bag, the trick would be revealed).[5] However, there is some reason to believe that the term "letting the cat out of the bag" originates in the British Royal Navy of Admiral Nelson's time or earlier and refers to the act of removing the so-called "Cat o' nine tails", a form of whip or scourge used in punishment, from a bag. This is also believed to be the origin of the term "No room to swing a cat" according to the staff of HMS Victory and refers to the low headroom on the gundecks, where punishment using the "Cat" was performed.

Trivia[edit]

In the April 1929 edition of the literary magazine London Aphrodite, a story by Rhys Davies, titled "A Pig in a Poke", was published, in which a Welsh collier takes a woman from London for his wife and regrets it.[7] (Boulton 1993: p. 278)

The title of Georges Feydeau's 1888 play "Chat en poche" is taken from the French expression.

The name of the TV game show hosted by John Astin in the Chevy Chase sequel National Lampoon's European Vacation in which the Griswolds win what they think is a deluxe vacation to England (London), France (Paris), Germany (Bavaria) and Italy (Rome).

References[edit]

  1. ^ pig in a poke at YourDictionary.com
  2. ^ pup at Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
  3. ^ be sold a pup at The Free Dictionary
  4. ^ pig in a poke at IdiomDictionary.com
  5. ^ a b Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898.
  6. ^ Let the cat out of the bag on The Phrase Finder
  7. ^ Boulton, James T. (1993). The Letters of D.H. Lawrence. Volume VII: November 1928 – February 1930. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Bibliography[edit]