Pig in a poke

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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 were not.[1][2][3] The scheme entailed the sale of a suckling pig in a poke. The bag, sold unopened, would actually contain a cat or dog, which was substantially less valuable as a source of meat. 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.[4] This taught many scammed people the phrase "Caveat Emptor", or "buyer beware" as translated from Latin.


In the past, it was common for small farmers to put a pig in a cloth sack to bring it to market for sale. 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 places, including Scotland and some regions of the United States. For example, among English hop growers, a poke is a large sack into which hops are poured to be taken from the picking machine to the oast for drying.

The full maxim is "don't buy a pig in a poke". This is addressed in the common law by guaranteeing a buyer the right to inspect goods before purchase, as in Gardner v Gray(1815).[5][6]

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.

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 隔山买老牛 buy a cow over there in another mountain
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/pasar gato por liebre to give a cat instead of a hare (as food)
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
Swedish köpa grisen i säcken to buy the pig in the sack
Vietnamese mua mèo trong bị to buy a cat in a bag
Welsh prynu cath mewn cwd to buy a cat in a bag
Zulu ukuthenga ingulube esesakeni to buy a pig in a sack

This trick may be the origin of the expression "letting the cat out of the bag",[7] meaning to reveal that which is secret (if the would-be buyer opened the bag, the trick would be revealed).[4]

Use in popular culture[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.[8] (Boulton 1993: p. 278)

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

See also[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. ^ a b Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898.
  5. ^ Gardner v Gray 1815 : no caveat emptor principle applies where there has been no opportunity to inspect goods.
  6. ^ Sale of Goods Act 1979
  7. ^ Let the cat out of the bag on The Phrase Finder
  8. ^ Boulton, James T. (1993). The Letters of D.H. Lawrence. Volume VII: November 1928 – February 1930. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.