A pig in a poke


What's the meaning of the phrase 'A pig in a poke'?

A pig in a poke is an offer or deal that is foolishly accepted without being examined first.

What's the origin of the phrase 'A pig in a poke'?

‘Don’t buy a pig in a poke’ might seem odd and archaic language. It’s true that the phrase is very old, but actually it can be taken quite literally and remains good advice.

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.

The phrase ‘A pig in a poke’ was
first heard in Tudor England, using
the French word ‘poque’, which
is a bag.

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 getting on for five hundred years, maybe longer.

Fraser’s Magazine, 1858, reprinted a piece from Richard Hill’s (or Hilles’) Common-place Book, 1530, which gave this advice to market traders:

“When ye proffer the pigge open the poke.”

John Heywood included something nearer to our modern-day version of the phrase in A Dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe tongue, 1555-60:

I will neuer bye the pyg in the poke :
Thers many a foule pyg in a feyre cloke.

See: ‘let the cat out of the bag‘.

See: the List of Proverbs.

Trend of a pig in a poke in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.