#Caturday – A Pig in a Poke and a Cat in a Bag

“Don’t buy a pig in a poke.” The expression was first published in 1546–in English, anyway–in a book of proverbs collected by John Heywood. One place tells me that “poke” is an old Dutch word meaning “bag” or “sack” and another place tells me it derives from “poque,” French for “bag” or “sack,” so pick your language. I know my great-grandma called a sack a poke, and she was from Kentucky. What that means, I cannot say.

ANYWAY, the story goes that disreputable farmers would take pigs to the market but would substitute a cat before they handed the poke over to the buyer. If the buyer just bought the pig in the poke, a strange surprise might be waiting for the cook when the buyer got back to the kitchen. If the buyer checked and the cat escaped, he or she let the cat out of the bag.

Now, I don’t know about pigs and cats in England, France, Germany and Russia but, around here, pigs go oink and cats go meow. Pigs around here also tend to be a bit larger than cats, and have hard hooves instead of sharp claws.


Call me Sherlock, but I just have to think I would know a pig from a cat, poke or no poke. But I could be wrong.

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: A character buys something in good faith and discovers he or she has received something unexpected.



I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “#Caturday – A Pig in a Poke and a Cat in a Bag

  1. Jane

    February 23, 2013 at 9:46am

    Hi, Remember the dictionary of phrase and fable? A great read for a winter night. I can’t recall just now what the proper name in the title is, but I loved the entries with their detailed info on when and how phrases entered the English language. NOT a pig in a poke, but almost as much fun as a cat in the bag.
    Makes me think of herding cats.

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  2. Sarah Park

    February 24, 2013 at 12:21am

    Now I know where did this phrase came from. But is the story real?

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      February 24, 2013 at 9:17am

      I have a two-part answer to your question:

      The story is all over the place, in reference books before the internet. So the story, itself, is real. I didn’t make it up.

      The story doesn’t make any sense, so I don’t think the story is true. I think people took the English saying, “Don’t buy a pig in a poke,” and sayings from other countries, “Don’t buy a cat in a bag,” and stuck them together. I think the original problem was that unscrupulous people would let you pick out a good specimen from their stock (or litter of puppies/kittens), then give you an inferior specimen OF THE SAME SPECIES. I also suspect that you were advised not to let the cat out of the bag if you had it in there in order to take it and drown it.

      That’s what I think. What do you think?

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