Mountain Talk: Origins of “Pig in a Poke”



“Git yins a poke ‘fur it gits too late and git out there and pick me some green beans”, ordered my Appalachian granny on more than one occasion to myself and some of my lazier cousins!  An expression that we would all probably have to translate to our children, but one that we knew perfectly well.

Growing up, I can’t recall my father or granny ever using the word “bag”.  I always thought bags were things city-folk used.  Our family was a “poke” family.

Dad would often say that a bad singer “couldn’t carry a tune in a paper poke” and at the local grocery store, Pic-Pac, we would get our groceries in a brown poke; however, one thing we were always cautious of was not to purchase a “pig in a poke.”

Though largely forgotten in modern-day English, the term poke was once a commonly used word to describe a sack or a bag and an even more widely used expression from days gone by was “pig in a poke”.

Today, if you say to someone that you’re afraid you may have purchased a “pig in a poke” you’ll probably garner yourself some odd and blank stares; however, not too many days ago this was a widely used expression.

The term can be traced back to the late-Middle Ages in a world where beef, pork and sheep were a scare luxury.

Dogs and cats often roamed wild during this time, while domesticated canines were put to work guarding livestock or the homes of wealthy people.  Cats helped control the mice population, serving a critical purpose in keeping the public healthy.

With prices of livestock being extremely expensive and there being an abundance of cats and dogs in many places, street venders would often wrap cats and dogs into sealed bags (pokes) and pass them off to unwitting consumers as a “pig in a poke”.

This scheme continued for generations throughout Europe and in the process, “pig in a poke” became an idiom for any purchase made by an individual which turned out to be of far less value than they had been led to believe.

The legal precedence of the Latin phrase “Caveat Emptor”, “buyer beware”, is a direct result of the pig in a poke scheme.

I remember hearing my father use this term on several occassions, including the first car purchase I ever made — a vehicle I initially believed was my dream car only to turn out to have been the vehicle from hades.  “Son, I think you might’ve bought a pig in a poke.”

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

Share this article with your friends on Facebook: