I Pokily Poked a Poke in the Pokey

The English language is a marvelous thing, isn’t it? Not just the depth and breadth and height of it, or the way it freely (and forcibly) adopts works from other languages, but the way it evolves and grows and mutates. Yet, despite the size and scale of the language, and all the neat parlour tricks it’s picked up – the verbing of nouns and the nouning of verbs, to give two examples – it still occasionally forces a single word to do double, triple, or even quadruple duty.

Consider “poke”, and all its variations.

Today, by and large, it’s a verb, more or less synonymous with “prod”.
A couple hundred years ago, it was a noun, meaning a bag or sack. (Hence the term “pig in a poke”.)

Nobody seems too clear on how it came to mean bag, and the only etymology for it as a verb I can find unhelpfully notes that it’s “pugilist’s slang”. (Possibly of the same era that gave us the euphemistic term “claret tapper”… but I digress.)

But poke – or at least “pokey” or “poky” – can also be a slang adjective, meaning “slow”. Nobody seems to know why this is.

Pokey can also, as a noun, mean a jail (or gaol). Nobody knows why this is, either; maybe it’s connected to “pig in a poke”? (Except pig as a term for a policeman is a mid 20th-century invention, and pokey as a term for jail seems to predate that by a century.)

Hence, it’s theoretically possible to, in fact, pokily poke a poke in the pokey (slowly prod a bag in jail), though people might get the wrong idea if you go around saying that…

Oh, and according to some dictionaries, “pokey” or “poky” can also mean fast.

So, I guess you could, pokily, poke a pokey poke in the pokey, if that’s what floats your boat.

And we wonder why the English language can at times be incomprehensible to non-native speakers?

Published in: Geekiness, General | on November 30th, 2009| 1 Comment »

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One Comment Leave a comment.

  1. On 12/1/2009 at 3:31 am Viktor Said:

    I am a non native speaker, and I find the multiple meanings of words thing to be one of the lesser hurdles to the language. Every language has them, and while English may be richer in them than others I find that as a foreigner I tend to have looked up a lot more words in the dictionary, and often know more meanings than native speakers. Other peculiarities are worse, in particular there are a lot of ‘false friends’ in some extended sense.

    OED lists 6 noun variants and 3 verb variants for poke. Just the first one contains maybe 20 sub-meanings, including this gem: “N. Amer. Criminals’ slang. A purse, a wallet; a pocketbook.”

    As for the bag meaning, the first quotation is from ~1300:
    c1300 Havelok (Laud) (1868) 780 Hise pokes fulle of mele an korn. 1
    There are others from the 14th century.

    As for the definition they say:
    A bag, now esp. a paper bag; a small sack; (Sc.) a beggar’s bundle (obs.). Also: a bagful. Now regional exc. in pig in a poke (see PIG n.1 Phrases 4).
    Formerly used as a measure of quantity, varying according to the quality and nature of the commodity. Pokes seem to have been used particularly for the conveyance of raw wool.

    The etymology they give is long, but I give it for completeness, I have a bit of an OED fetish:
    Either

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