In Hot Water and Holding the Bag

Over a restaurant's breakfast menu the other morning, a friend raised an important question: Why do we use the word "poached" for both a deer taken out of season and an egg cooked in hot water?

Inquiring minds wanted to know. When I got home, I consulted the curious editor's best friend—the unabridged dictionary. I found two possible explanations.

According to our Random House Dictionary of the English Language (Unabridged), the word "poach" comes from Middle French "pocher" by way of Middle English "potch." It means "bag."

This word is the reason a bag is sometimes called a "poke," and it's where we get the expression "a pig in a poke." If you were foolish enough to buy a bagged pig without looking inside the sack to make sure you were actually getting pork on the hoof, you might be tricked into buying a less edible critter. You wouldn't know you'd been scammed until you "let the cat out of the bag."

But I digress. Back to poaching. The connection with hunting is clear enough. We still use "bag" to mean getting the game you're after. Besides, it makes sense that if you were hunting illegally, you might want to put whatever you got into a bag. But how do you get from bagging game to cooking eggs?

The RHDEL(U) says that an egg cooked in hot water is "poached" because the white holds the yoke the way a bag would. I'm not going to argue with a dictionary that weighs as much as a small child, but that seems like a stretch to me. Although I would concede that a quivering, runny poached egg looks like it ought to be in a bag, preferably a garbage bag.

There's another possibility, however. Another meaning of "poached," which the RHDEL(U) says comes from the Middle French "pocher" meaning "gouge," is "to mix with water and reduce to a uniform consistency, as clay." (There was no explanation of why Middle French apparently used the same word for "bag" and "gouge," as in, "Just stick that there pig in a poke, and if it squeals, poke it with a stick.")

There's also a word "poachy" that means "slushy or swampy." This seems to me to have a more reasonable association with the watery texture of a not-quite-boiled egg. Maybe poached eggs came into modern English through a swamp rather than in a bag.

Who knows? And, except for those of us who are nitpicking word freaks, probably no one really cares.

What I do know is that, if you steal an egg out from under your neighbor's hen and break it into boiling water, you're going to have a twice-poached egg. And if you shoot a deer or a pheasant out of season, you're likely to end up in hot water with egg on your face.

Categories: Words for Nerds | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “In Hot Water and Holding the Bag

  1. Frank

    According to an article I recently read, Microsoft has been poaching Apple staff, promising bigger wages. Now, do the poached staff find themselves in hot water? Or are they fair game? Enlighten me, Kathie.

  2. Kathleen

    I suppose they might be fair game, unless it isn’t Apple-picking season.

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