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Poach

Q From Ozer Bergman: If I had a poached egg for breakfast, did I have contraband?

A You might guess that we have yet another case of English words of the same spelling and pronunciation that have arrived in the language from different sources. But that may not be true in this case. Bear with me, it’s complicated.

The word meaning to cook an egg without its shell in boiling water is the easier to explain. It can be traced back through the Middle French verb pochier, with the same meaning, to the noun poche, a bag or pouch. The idea seems to have been that the white of the egg was a container for the yolk. That makes the egg sense of poach a close relative of pouch, of the bag sense of poke (as in not buying a pig in one), and pocket, which is etymologically a little poke. By the end of the seventeenth century this sense of poach had been extended to simmering fish, fruit and other foodstuffs in water.

The other poach, to illegally hunt fish or game, began life in English to mean prod, shove, or roughly push together, to push or stir. This probably came from the Old French pocher, to prod, and is a relative of another sense of poke. This sense of prodding is obsolete in mainstream English but survives to some extent in regional English dialects and in Scots. Later, poach developed into unlawfully encroaching on someone else’s preserve, to trespass. It has a third sense of breaking up ground into muddy patches through animals trampling it.

These three senses puzzle the experts, because they don’t seem to derive from a single word. But there are no other obvious candidates. The mud sense is probably connected with hooves prodding the ground. The illegal hunting sense has been said to be from the idea of figuratively pushing into somebody else’s territory, which by the early 1700s had become linked to taking game illegally as an extension of the idea of trespass.

But it’s also argued that the illegal hunting sense might be from thrusting something into a bag (as in poacher’s pocket, etymologically an intriguing phrase), which would make it a development of the other word. This is supported by Randle Cotgrave’s note in his Dictionary of the French and English Tongues of 1611 that it refers to encroaching on another man’s trade or employment, as the English equivalent of a French expression which speaks of pocketing another man’s labour.

Whatever the source, Mr Bergman, you may safely eat your poached egg without fear of the law.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 18 Oct. 2014

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 18 October 2014.