Friday, August 01, 2008

hokey pokey

A few weeks ago I received the following email from my little brother in North Dakota (or as I call it, NoDak):
We still haven't had any snow since May, but I'm not ready to rule it out.

I raised the question to Dad about the origin of the phrase "rule of thumb" when you guys were here for G's Baptism. Since then I have been exposed to another phrase that I need help with.

"Don't buy a pig in a poke"

I understand this to mean: Don't buy some thing (or idea) until you know exactly what you are getting."

But what is the connection?
Ah yes, perplexing questions indeed. Luckily I was well equipped (or at least quipped) to answer.

Here's the email I sent in reply:
Re: Your question about the "Pig in a Poke."

As you may know, I'm a bit of an expert on word origins. You might say I'm a cunning linguist. Anyway, I thought I'd finally respond by bringing my considerable brain power to bear on your question.

Like many modern expressions, the phrase "don't buy a pig in a poke" is a linguistic hand-me-down from our Middle Ages English forefathers (and foremothers).

Back in jolly old England, a "poke" was a kind of sack used generally to carry things around. Your typical lower-level medieval henchman, for example, might use it to carry around loot from his latest pillaging. A Shakespearean actor might use it for the conveyance of quill pens or frilly collars or Lee Press On Nails.

Serfs and peasants were big users of pokes. Dentally-challenged farmers would use them to carry potatoes, cabbages and other produce to market in the local village where they would barter and trade for necessities brought by dentally-challenged English merchants -- things like cloth, tools, deodorant and the like.

This was a pretty good system, and worked fairly well as a rule -- so long as everyone followed the unwritten social contracts of middle-age England. The problem, of course, arose when certain not-so-savory individuals tried to game the system.

These individuals, these rubes (who, we can assume, were the forefathers of energy company executives and mortgage loan brokers) often tried to cheat the unsuspecting peasant out of hard-earned cabbage by trying to pass off a nasty, feral cat as a nice tasty pig.

So the trusting peasant would trade his cabbage for a "pig in a poke" expecting a nice dinner of ham and back bacon, only to find a big sour puss in the bag when he got it home.

Of course, the English peasant being no fool, word quickly got around that you shouldn't "buy a pig in a poke." You should first look in the bag and make sure you're getting the pork and not the shaft.

And, as proverbs tend to do, the advice came to mean you should seriously look into any statement made by sellers of pork (including energy company execs and mortgage loan brokers).

And that's... One To Grow On®

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  1. they still call 'em "pokes" in Western Pennsylvania (Pennsyltucky).

  2. That was awesome. I feel so much smarter now! That was always one of those weird sayings I never understood...Now I can use the phrase with confidence. Thanks, you expanded my vocabulary today!

  3. Thanks for throwin some learning our way!

    I always thought the phrase was a warning against beer goggles, you know "never poke a pig"...


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