More Than One Meaning for “Poke”

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One of my favorite country expressions is “pig in a poke.” For those unfamiliar with the expression, a “poke” is a sack. To buy something without first looking at it is to buy a pig in a poke. (As we do when we buy things online.)

I once used the word with a group of eighth-graders and discovered that poke can be used with a sexual connotation. With that age group, just about any word can be.

The OED lists six entries for poke as a noun and three for poke as a verb. Some of the entries have more than one definition, but I’ll just list some of them.

Poke as a Noun

1 A bag, now esp. a paper bag; a small sack; a beggar’s bundle (obs.). Also: a bagful. Now regional exc. in pig in a poke

2 A projecting brim or front of a hat or bonnet; the peak of a cap. Now hist. and Brit. regional.

NOTE: My Southern grandmother told me that when she worked in the fields, she wore a poke bonnet, This was a cloth hat that tied under the chin. The sides of the bonnet completely protected her face from the sun. Nowadays women go out of their way to get a suntan, even paying to use use tanning beds. In my grandmother’s day, girls did all they could to maintain their pallor. Tanned skin was considered unattractive. She said that another name for that type of bonnet was a “kiss-me-quick.”

3 A plant (of uncertain identity) used by North American Indians for smoking; the dried leaves of this plant.

4 Virginia poke, Virginian poke. Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana. Also (with distinguishing word): any plant of the genus Phytolacca.

NOTE: My grandmother, no doubt wearing her poke bonnet, gathered this kind of poke to eat. She called it poke salat. She cooked and ate the leaves and used the red berries to dye clothing. Molly McBee, writing on the Garden Web edible landscapes forum, offers some helpful in-formation about poke salat and the extent to which it is poisonous:

Poke salat, when it matures, develops purple colorations on its stalk, flower stem, and berries and seeds. It is the MATURE leaves, and purple stem and seeds that contain the poisonous sub-stances. Young plants are safe, as is the juice.

5 The action of poking (in various senses)…An act of poking; a thrust, a push, a nudge. Also colloq.: a blow with the fist, esp. in to take (or have) a poke at.

6 The green heron, Butorides striatus. Also: the American bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus.

Poke as a Verb

1 To jab or push (a person) with one’s hand or finger, the point of a stick, etc., esp. so as to induce action or movement. Also (regional) (of cattle): to gore, jab with the horns.

2 trans. To put in a bag or pocket. Also with up: to stash away in a bag or pocket; to hoard. In quot. a1400 fig.: to suppress. Now rare. Chiefly Sc. in later use.

3 trans. To put a poke (POKE n.5 6) on (an animal).

A few other expressions with “poke”

Cowboys are known as cowpunchers and cowpokes.

Children who don’t move fast enough for the ones behind them are called slowpokes.

One can poke around in an attic or at a garage sale.

In mysteries amateur sleuths are warned not to poke their noses into matters that do not concern them.

Poke is still taking on new meanings. For example, Facebook has a “poke” feature. I’m not exactly clear as to its purpose.

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18 thoughts on “More Than One Meaning for “Poke””

  1. The “kids” today (including big kids like me) also use “Poke” as a shortened form for “Pok√©mon.”

  2. There’s also the BASIC (Beginner’s All Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) command to poke a value into a memory address. POKE 23609,50 for example. BASIC was very popular on computers in the 1970s and 80s.
    The opposite of this is a function called PEEK which looks at the value in a memory address. PRINT PEEK 23609

  3. This is interesting as, in the UK (in the South and London area at least), ‘poke’ has been in common use as a crude euphemism for sex for a least half a century (guess my age). I was a little surprised when I first joined Facebook therefore…

    Two nations divided by a common language, or were the Facebook people having a quiet laugh?

  4. I love this entry! And you’re right about junior high students. Every word seems to have a sexual connotation. It’s got to the hormones.

    The word poke has always been funny to me. A few years ago my husband and I were driving through southeastern Oklahoma and we passed a 7-11 type place called “Toke a Poke.” My husband didn’t know what poke meant in that context. (He’s from Brooklyn)

    I started to explain it meant ‘carry a bag’ home. But then I got really tickled because a totally silly possibility came to me. I’ve heard of drive-thru churches in L.A. Drive-thru weddings in Vegas. Was this the other end of the scale? In OK did they have a drive-thru brothel? “Come by and Tote a Poke home?” LOL

    Sorry, I guess a bit of me is still in junior high. and I must confess I poke my facebook friends!

  5. You reminded me of a great song back in the 60s by Tony Joe White, called “Poke Salad Annie,” about a girl who would “go down by the truck patch and pick her a mess o’ poke salad and carry it home in a tote sack…” Guess she carried her poke in a poke!

  6. Peter-because it is Japanese in origin. We’ve had pokemon fans in our family for over 10 years, never yet heard it shortened to “poke.”

    PS. I recall “kiss-me-quicks!”

  7. Mary Jo: I thought of the same song except the version I know has Elvis singing it.

    Re: Facebook “Poke”: I believe that it is a playful reminder to someone that they are still around without having to write anything… like the idea of a wink to say hello without saying anything.

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  9. I doubt those 8th graders read Larry McMurtry, but I first heard of “poke” being used in that context when I read Lonesome Dove.

  10. Mary Jo,
    Hmm, and Tony Joe was born in Louisiana! I would have thought he’d known that poke salat is spelled with a “t.” Maybe his producers thought that non-Southerners would interpret salat as a misspelling.

    Interesting entry for salad at Online Etymology Dictionary:

    1390, from O.Fr. salade (14c.), from V.L. *salata, lit. “salted,” short for herba salata “salted vegetables” (vegetables seasoned with brine, a popular Roman dish), from fem. pp. of *salare “to salt,” from L. sal (gen. salis) “salt” (see salt). Du. salade, Ger. Salat, Swed. salat, Rus. salat are from Romanic languages.

  11. Here is a funny one you may not have heard of:
    In our family we got our definition of poke from grandpa. He grew up in New York. If one of the boys happened to ‘pass gas’ the others could punch him in the arm – unless he yelled out “no poke” before they had a chance. So through the years this bodily function has evolved into a nopoke or a poke.

  12. Here in Northern Ireland a ‘poke’ is an icecream in a cone. Also an icecream between two wafers was know as a ‘slider’.

  13. Peter-because it is Japanese in origin.

    I know that, that’s why I asked…It’s pronounced like “pock” in Japanese, not like “poke”. (And actually, it’s English in origin: it’s a “Japlish” shortened form of “pocket monster”)

  14. how funny, i ran into this page after searching in google for the meaning of tote a poke. I spent all day in eastern ok today and seen 3 or 4 of the “tote-a-poke” convenience stores, i think i have finished every one of my sentences with “tote a poke” all day lol

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