The Grammarphobia Blog

A pig in a poke

Q: On successive days, I heard these terms used at my senior complex: “a pig and a poke” and “a pig in a poke.” Which is correct?

A: The correct term now is “a pig in a poke,” though quite a few other versions of the expression have made it into print over the years.

A “poke” is an old word for a pouch or bag or sack; this word has been in English since around 1300. The Oxford English Dictionary says pokes “seem to have been used particularly for the conveyance of raw wool.”

The expression “to buy a pig in a poke” means to accept something you haven’t seen or examined. Variants of the phrase have been around since the Middle Ages.

The expression “a pig in a pouch,” for example, was recorded in the Proverbs of Hendyng, a collection of writings from the 1200s

Here’s a 1555 version from John Heywood’s Epigrammes: “I wyll never bye the pyg in the poke.”

And here’s another example, dated 1583, from Robert Greene’s Mamillia: “He is a foole, they say, that will buy ye pig in the poke: or wed a wife without trial.”

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