Etymological Poking

A cowpoke is a another word for a cowboy or someone who works with cows. A slowpoke is someone who works or moves slowly. So what’s the origin of the word poke? Does it have the same meaning in both words? Perhaps it simply means something like dude, an informal term for a person of either sex? Could we just as well say cowdude or slowdude. Would that make a programmer like me a codepoke? Would we call someone who types on keyboards for a living a keypoke? Would an Etymologist be a wordpoke?

Or is it just a coincidence that cowpoke and slowpoke both end with poke? One common definition of poke is to push or jab, an action that a cowboy would take when branding a cow. Perhaps the act of poking the cow with a branding iron caused one to be known as a cowpoke? Meanwhile, another common definition of poke is to proceed in a lazy manner. That sort of fits with slowpoke except that the prefix slow would be redundant, as is noted in several word origin dictionaries. The best explanation they can offer for slowpoke is that perhaps slow referred to intelligence so that the word meant a stupid person who proceeds in a lazy manner.

None of the online dictionaries seem to provide a definitive explanation of what poke means in the context of these two words. Unfortunately, none of the definitions of poke seem to support my theory either. There is no common definition of poke that means anything close to a gender neutral term for a person. Or is there? One archaic definition of poke was bag or sack (e.g. a pig in a poke). Bag and sack are also commonly used as postfixes on various vulgarisms to describe individuals (e.g. scumbag). It’s a bit of a stretch but I also think of the Star Trek TNG episode in which the aliens refer to Humans as “ugly bags of mostly water”. Bag is again used as a generic term for humans.

One last possibility is that poke refers not to the person doing the work but to the work itself. At least one word origin site suggested that in the 1800s, “poke represented the image of work, being based on a common work activity of the times, as did punch”. So by this theory cowpoke means cowwork and slowpoke means slowwork. That’s close enough for me as it still allows me to coin some fun new words like codepoke, keypoke, and wordpoke. Hmmm… and what about webpoke, blogpoke, botpoke.

7 thoughts on “Etymological Poking

  1. That’s was a good explanation it’s always cool to really know what words mean and how they came to be or in this case the origin wasn’t quite pinned down but interesting that it couldn’t be.

  2. You might check out pók , a Hungárián word meaning spider. The cognates from that could suggest, a poke or jab and also to poke along or meander. A stretch?

  3. Thank u so much, i had a couriosity about that word since my daughter came one time from her school saying that :)

  4. Poke also means to push or move forward, to drive. Thus a cowpoke moves or drives cows and a slowpoke is someone that slowly pushes forward.

  5. A Poke is also a short word for a pokemon, so perhaps that could also be the origin. First used to describe a slow pokemon, the word soon spread to describe humans as well.

  6. I like the idea but Pokémon is a very recent word, coined in the 1990s as a unique (and therefore trademarkable) concatenation of syllables from the game’s original name “Pocket Monsters”. Words like cowpoke are more than 100 years older.

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