More Than One Meaning for “Poke”
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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