Q: In Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance, a father tells his son that “slow coaches” get left behind. He uses “slow coach” the way I’d use “slowpoke.” Which term is more popular? And where does “slowpoke” come from?
A: Both terms refer to a slow or idle person, and both showed up in the 19th century—“slow coach” first in the UK and “slowpoke” soon after in the US.
So it’s not surprising to find “slow coach” used in Mistry’s novel about four people thrust together in a cramped apartment in India. The author himself was born and brought up in India, where English is of the British variety.
Which term is more popular? “Slowpoke” (or “slow poke”) by far, with 2.2 million hits on Google compared with 443,000 for “slowcoach” (or “slow coach”).
But a lot depends on where you live. “Slowcoach” shows up more often in the UK and Commonwealth countries. “Slowpoke” is seen more often in the US. (Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked prefer the single-word versions of these terms.)
The Oxford English Dictionary describes “slowpoke” as “colloq., chiefly U.S.” However, most of the OED’s citations for the term are from British writers.
The earliest Oxford citation for “slowpoke” is from John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1848): “ ‘What a slow poke you are!’ A woman’s word.”
But the next citation is from an 1877 British glossary of words used in East Yorkshire: “Slaw-pooak … a dunce; a driveller.” (In Old English, slaw means obtuse or dull.)
The most recent OED example is from Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnight’s Children: “Come on, slowpoke, you don’t want to be late.”
The OED’s earliest citation for “slowcoach” is from Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1837):
“What does this allusion to the slow coach mean? … It may be a reference to Pickwick himself, who has … been a criminally slow coach during the whole of this transaction.”
The term “slowcoach” is clearly a figurative use of a literal phrase for a slow-moving vehicle. So where does “slowpoke” come from?
The OED raises the possibility that the second half of the compound may be derived from apooke, a Virginia Algonquian term for tobacco that literally means “thing for smoking.”
The dictionary says the English word “poke” used in this sense referred to “a plant (of uncertain identity) used by North American Indians for smoking; the dried leaves of this plant.”
“Plants with which poke has been identified,” Oxford adds, “include a lobelia (Lobelia inflata), pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), and wild tobacco (Nicotiana rustica), all also called Indian tobacco.”
The dictionary, in its “slowpoke” entry, points the reader to its entry for the tobacco sense of “poke,” but it doesn’t speculate about any connection between the two words.
If there is a connection, perhaps the term for a slow-burning or slow-igniting wild tobacco may have been used figuratively to mean a slow-moving person.
A more likely etymology, we think, is that “poke” here is derived from “poky” and “poking,” adjectives meaning, among other things, slow or dawdling.
Those two adjectives are derived in turn from the verb “poke,” which can mean to potter about or dawdle away.
The OED’s first citation for “poke” used in this sense is from one of our favorite books, Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility (1811): “Lord bless me! how do you think I can live poking by myself?”
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