From Choate’s American Bird Names:

Shite poke. An attempt to render more delicate by a change in spelling a name for the bird derived from its habit of ejecting effluent when making a startled departure. In America applied indiscriminately to the Black-crowned Night Heron, the Green-backed Heron and the bittern. Poke, now E. dialect, “bag”, except when you buy a pig in one.

Anyone who has read Choate is familiar with the small pleasures he provides: this one ornithological (as always), etymological (as often), and scatological (uniquely). I think the “except” in the final sentence is meant to except “pig in a poke” from the designation as E. dialectical usage, since it survives as an idiom in many American dialects. If it isn’t immediately recognizable as a word meaning “bag,” think of  “pocket,” or “pouch,” which are cognates.

“A pig in a poke” means an unknown quantity, something bought without having been inspected beforehand. According to the Wiki, it refers “to a confidence trick originating in the Late Middle Ages, when meat was scarce, but cats and dogs (puppies) were not.” Nice trick.

The wiki goes on to list idioms in a number of European languages that involve buying cats in bags, and speculates that the expression “let the cat out of the bag” is the probably counterpart to “a pig in a poke” (This is what would presumably happen when you arrived back at your hovel and discovered the secret contents of the poke you picked up at the fair).

So, shitepoke, shit bag, shit bird. Merriam Webster has an etymology that, inadvertent or not, finds a wonderful way of placing the cart and the horse in their correct order: “shite + poke; fr. its traditional habit of defecating when flushed.”

Here’s a lovely picture of one (though I worry about the angle of the photographer):

One effect of finally seeing a shitepoke is an uncanny re-vision of my impressions of the Stevens parody by Tom Clark, “Eleven Ways of Looking at a Shit Bird”, which starts:


In twenty occupied stalls
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the shit bird

I was of three minds
Like the man who has just seen three shit birds.

…but isn’t about a bird at all.

And, while we’re at the crossroads of ornithology, etymology, and scatology, our old friend John Horne Tooke ‘argues that the word shit or shite comes from an Anglo-Saxon word scyton*, “to throw, cast forth, throw out” (from, in turn, Latin projicere, dejicere), and that this derivation yields the clue to the true meaning of other more seemly English words” (from Derek Attridge, Peculiar Language, 102).

Here’s Tooke’s Diversions of Purley, vol. II, first listing his supposed cognates, then explaining the relation:

[shot, shotten, shut, shuttle, shoot, shout, shit, shitten, shittle, sheet, Scot, scotto, scout, skit, skittish, sketch, sagitta]

All these, so variously written, pronounced and applied, have but one common meaning : and are all the past participle, sceat, of the Anglo-Saxon and English verb scytan, scitan, To Shite, i. e. projicere, dejicere, To throw. To cast forth. To throw out.


Shut and shit are also the past tense (and therefore past participle) of the verb To Shite. And though, according to the modern fashion, we now write — To Shut the door — the common people generally pronounce it more properly and nearly to the original verb, and say — To Shet the door : Which means to Throw or Cast the door to. But formerly it was otherwise written and pronounced : nor had a false delicacy proscribed a very innocent and decent word, till affectation made it otherwise.

*Attridge explains: “There is no such Anglo-Saxon word: Tooke has apparently conflated scyttan, to throw, and scitan, to shit.”‘

Funny that Choate thinks shite to be a euphemistic spelling.

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