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Pig in a poke

Posted by James Briggs on October 20, 2002

In Reply to: Pig in a poke posted by Shae on October 20, 2002

: : Having read the explanation of this phrase within this site, I thought it fell rather short on the complete etymology of the phrase. Indeed, a poke is/was a small pocket or sack. On a market, a pig would often be purchased, and unless the buyer examined the pig, he would likely find a puppy or cat in the bag, and this would be useless to him if he had purchased it for food. This also gave rise to 'letting the cat out of the bag'.

: Etymology of 'poke': a wallet, a bag, a sack. Old Norman French 'poque,' Old French 'poche.' Terence Patrick Dolan, 'A Dictionary of Hiberno-English,' Gill & Macmillan, 1998.

: A pig in a poke: something bought without inspection; goods accepted and paid for blindly.
: 'He would have greatly preferred to have the precious manuscript, like the others, for nothing; but after all, what was demanded of him was better than being asked to give hard cash for a pig in a poke' - James Payne.

I've often wondered about this phrase and what it has come to mean. The original object was to go to market and buy a pig. If you weren't careful, sometimes there was a cat or pup in the bag - as indicated the cat was 'let out of the bag'. The object was to buy a pig. Why does this phrase now mean that you bought something unwanted? More logically it would be 'buy a pup (or cat) in a poke'. This must an example of catachresis in language, ie a reversal of original meaning, but why?