Pig in a poke

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For other uses, see Pig in a poke (disambiguation).

The idioms pig in a poke and sell a pup (or buy a pup) refer to a confidence trick originating in the Late Middle Ages, when meat was scarce, but cats and dogs (puppies) were not.[1][2][3] The idiom pig in a poke can also simply refer to someone buying a low-quality pig in a bag because he or she did not carefully check what was in the bag.[4]

Etymology[edit]

The scheme entailed the sale of a suckling pig in a poke (bag). The bag would actually contain a cat or dog (substantially less valuable as a source of meat), which was sold to the victim in an unopened bag. 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.[5]

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.

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.

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 approximately five hundred years, maybe longer.

LanguagePhraseTranslation
Arabicيشتري سمك في ماءto buy fish in water
Bulgarianда купиш котка в торбаto buy a cat in a bag
CatalanDonar/Prendre gat per llebreto give/to take cat instead of hare
Chinese挂羊头卖狗肉sell dog meat as mutton
Croatiankupiti mačka u vrećito buy a cat in a sack
Czechkoupit zajíce v pytlito buy a hare in a sack
Danishat købe katten i sækkento buy the cat in the sack
Dutcheen kat in de zak kopento buy a cat in the sack
Estonianostma põrsast kotisto buy a piglet in a sack
Frenchacheter un chat dans un sac
acheter chat en poche
to buy a cat in a bag
Finnishostaa sika säkissäto buy a pig in a sack
GermanDie Katze im Sack kaufento buy the cat in the sack
Greekαγοράζω γουρούνι στο σακκίto buy a pig in a sack
Hebrewחתול בשקcat in a sack
Hungarianzsákbamacskacat in a sack
Icelandicað kaupa köttinn í sekknumto buy the cat in the sack
Indonesiankucing dalam karungcat in a sack
Italiancomprare a scatola chiusato buy in a sealed box
Irishceannaigh muc i málabuying a pig in a bag
Latvianpirkt kaķi maisāto buy a cat in a sack
Lithuanianpirkti katę maišeto buy a cat in a sack
Luxembourgishd'Kaz am Sak kafento buy the cat in a sack
Macedonianда купиш мачка во вреќаto buy the cat in the sack
Maltesextara l-ħut fil-baħarto buy fish in the sea
Norwegiankjøpe katta i sekkento buy the cat in the sack
Polishkupić kota w workuto buy a cat in a sack
Portuguesecomprar gato por lebreto buy a cat instead of a hare
Romaniancumperi mâța în sacto buy the cat in the bag
Russianкупить кота в мешкеto buy a cat in a sack
Spanishdar gato por liebreto give a cat instead of a hare
Spanishhay gato encerradothere is a cat shut inside
Serbianкупити мачку у џакуto buy a cat in a sack
Slovakkúpiť mačku vo vrecito buy a cat in a sack
Slovenekupiti mačka v žakljuto buy a cat in a sack
Zuluukuthenga ingulube esesakenito buy a pig in a sack
Swedishköpa grisen i säckento buy the pig in the sack
Welshprynu cath mewn cwdto buy a cat in a bag

This trick also appears to be the origin of the expression "let the cat out of the bag",[6] meaning to reveal that which is secret (if the would-be buyer opened the bag, the trick would be revealed).[5] However, there is some reason to believe that the term "letting the cat out of the bag" originates in the British Royal Navy of Admiral Nelson's time or earlier and refers to the act of removing the so-called "Cat o' nine tails", a form of whip or scourge used in punishment, from a bag. This is also believed to be the origin of the term "No room to swing a cat" according to the staff of HMS Victory and refers to the low headroom on the gundecks, where punishment using the "Cat" was performed.

Trivia[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.[7] (Boulton 1993: p. 278)

The title of Georges Feydeau's 1888 play "Chat en poche" is taken from the French expression.

The name of the TV game show hosted by John Astin in the Chevy Chase sequel National Lampoon's European Vacation in which the Griswolds win what they think is a deluxe vacation to England (London), France (Paris), Germany (Bavaria) and Italy (Rome).

References[edit]

  1. ^ pig in a poke at YourDictionary.com
  2. ^ pup at Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
  3. ^ be sold a pup at The Free Dictionary
  4. ^ pig in a poke at IdiomDictionary.com
  5. ^ a b Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898.
  6. ^ Let the cat out of the bag on The Phrase Finder
  7. ^ Boulton, James T. (1993). The Letters of D.H. Lawrence. Volume VII: November 1928 – February 1930. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Bibliography[edit]