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.
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.
The scheme entailed the sale of a suckling pig
in a poke
(bag). The bag would actually contain a cat or dog (not particularly prized 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.
Relation to other idioms and expressions
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.