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Q From John David Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: Can you tell us the derivation of the word pogey which was used in parts of Canada during the Great Depression to mean government relief — similar to the dole and also disparaging. I grew up in western Canada and never heard pogey used but it is often referred to in Ontario.

A It seems to have come from a general North American term for a workhouse, homeless hostel or poorhouse, which is recorded from near the end of the nineteenth century. However, that is merely to move the problem back half a century, since the origin of pogey in that sense is also unknown.

As pogey was also used for a prison or prison cell, we might guess that it’s a variant of the American slang term pokey, but pogey is recorded rather earlier and it’s actually been suggested as the source for pokey.

(There’s also the US military term pogey bait for candy, ice cream or sweets in general, but the origin of this is obscure. It may be a relative of jail bait, with the idea of using the candy as an inducement.)

There is a much older word, pogue, for a bag or other container, which is closely related to poke in the same sense (which most commonly turns up now in phrases like buying a pig in a poke), and of course also to poky, for a confined space, which would fit the accommodation in prison or the workhouse fairly well. As g and k interchange pretty freely, it is very possible that pogey actually comes from poky, which suggests that pokey did ultimately come from that source, but via the intermediate of pogey.

Language is a messy thing ...

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 19 May 2001

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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: 19 May 2001.