Pig in a poke

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A pig in a poke is a thing that is bought without first being inspected, and thus of unknown authenticity or quality.[1] The idiom is attested in 1555:

I wyll neuer bye the pyg in the poke
Thers many a foule pyg in a feyre cloke[2]

A "poke" is a bag, so the image is of a concealed item being sold.

Starting in the 19th century, this idiom was explained as a confidence trick where a farmer would substitute a cat for a suckling pig when bringing it to market. When the buyer discovered the deception, he was said to "let the cat out of the bag", that is, to learn of something unfortunate prematurely.[3] 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]

In common law, buyers have the right to inspect goods before purchase.[5][6]

Etymology[edit]

A poke is a sack or bag, from French poque, which is also the etymon of "pocket", "pouch", and "poach".[7] Poke is still in regional use. Pigs were formerly brought to market for sale in a cloth bag, a poke.

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",[8] 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.[9] (Boulton 1993: p. 278)

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition, 2006 s.v. 'pig' P4
  2. ^ John Heywood, Two hundred Epi­grammes, vpon two hundred pro­uerbes, with a thyrde hundred newely added, 1555, full text
  3. ^ William Turton, "Origines Zoologicæ, or Zoological Recollections", in Magazine of Natural History and Journal of Zoology, Botany, Mineralogy, Geology and Meteorology 7 p. 326
  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. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition, s.v.v.
  8. ^ Let the cat out of the bag on The Phrase Finder
  9. ^ Boulton, James T. (1993). The Letters of D.H. Lawrence. Volume VII: November 1928 – February 1930. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bibliography[edit]