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Sarah Waters' award-winning Victorian crime novel Fingersmith makes liberal use of period underworld slang. Indeed the title is such slang for a petty thief. Most of it is unfamiliar to the modern reader but easy to understand from the context.

My curiosity was piqued by the unfamiliar language and I started looking some of it up to find the derivation. One phrase, however, I can't source at all: "poke" to mean stolen goods.

For out from their coats and sleeves would come pocket-books, silk handkerchiefs, petticoats - whole suits of clothes, sometimes. 'This is quality stuff, this is' they would say, as they set it all out; and Mr Ibbs would rub his hands and look expectant. But then he would study their poke, and his face would fall.

The only relationship for this meaning I could find is that "poke" is an old-fashioned word for pocket, and most of the thievery in Fingersmith is pickpocketry.

poke
n. Chiefly Southern US
A sack; a bag.

In-context use in the book, however, suggests the word means goods stolen by any means, not just picking pockets. And the US derivation makes it a stretch for Victorian London.

Can anyone confirm whether this meaning is genuine Victorian slang and where the author found this unfamiliar usage?

  • Not sure if I quite understand the context. Could it mean "money", as in this slang dictionary? – Rand al'Thor Jul 22 at 8:57
  • @Randal'Thor It may be related but it's not direct - look at the quote from the book where "poke" is used to describe stolen perfume. In another early example, it clearly means some stolen candlesticks. I can add the quote if you like? – Bob Tway Jul 22 at 9:05
  • So it means roughly "swag", to use a more modern slang term? – Rand al'Thor Jul 22 at 9:13
  • Surely she’s calling the bag ‘poor’ as a way of saying it’s value is low, in the same way the amount of game birds taken at a shoot would be described as ‘the bag’. Btw ‘poke’ is still used to mean bag in central Scotland. – Spagirl Jul 22 at 9:16
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    @MattThrower That's clearer. There is certainly nothing in the OED or the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue which suggests the usage. – Spagirl Jul 22 at 13:11
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This sense of the word is not in the OED, but Eric Partridge has it:

Poke. 1. Stolen property: from ca. 1850; ob. The Times, Nov 29, 1860; Baumann. Ex poke, a bag, pocket, etc.

Eric Partridge (1923). A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, fifth edition. p. 644. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

I don’t have access to the Times archive, but evidently the report was syndicated for it can be found in other newspapers via the British Newspaper Archive:

Langley deposed that he apprehended Rees at his lodgings. He was in bed with a young woman who lives with him as his wife. (He is about 16 or 17 years of age.) While dressing himself, he asked, “Did you find the ‘poke’ (booty) at the old man’s?” Witness made no answer.

London Evening Standard. Thursday, November 29, 1860.

Baumann’s dictionary of London slang is available via the Internet Archive:

poke 1. c) Gestohlenes, Beute: the ~ had been got away der Raub war beiseite geschafft worden.

Heinrich Baumann (1887). Londinismen, Slang und Cant, p. 141. Berlin: Langenscheidtsche.

‘Gestohlenes’ = stolen property; ‘Beute’ = booty, loot.

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What about 'a pig in a poke' If pokes were only small like wallets you couldn't get a pig in one. So I assume that the term should also apply to a larger item a sort of 'swag bag'

  • Could you expand on your actual answer to the question? It looks like there's an answer buried in here, but your post looks almost like a new question as well. – Rand al'Thor Jul 24 at 15:13

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