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Pig in a poke

Q From Mike Baker: All my life I have heard the phrase a pig in a poke. Do you know where this phrase originated?

A Though the current version in full is “Don’t buy a pig in a poke”, don’t buy or accept something without first checking or assessing it, it’s first recorded in London around 1530 in a form intended to be good advice to honourable traders: “When ye proffer the pigge open the poke”, but its best known early appearance is in John Heywood’s A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the proverbes in the Englishe tongue of 1546 (a title usually and with good reason abbreviated to Proverbs), where it appears in the form “Though he love not to buy the pig in the poke”. About 1555, Heywood included it in his other famous compilation work, Epigrammes, in the almost modern form “I will never bye the pig in the poke”.

Many Americans know a poke as a small bag or sack, which it was also in Heywood’s day (a usage that has survived in Scotland). A poke, for example, was a suitable container into which to stuff a piglet for sale in the local market.

The proverb encapsulates that wise advice to purchasers of goods, caveat emptor, let the buyer beware — always inspect the goods before you pay for them. Make the seller open his poke and show you the pig within.

Incidentally, the proverb has its direct counterparts in other languages, as in the Swedish Köp inte grisen i säcken! However, in other languages it refers to cats, as in French: Acheter chat en poche (“To buy a cat in a pouch”), and German: Die Katze im Sack kaufen (“To buy a cat in a sack”). Why the expressions in these languages refer to cats and not pigs supports a link with another expression, to let the cat out of the bag.

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Page created 26 Jun 2004