beat the grass to scare the snakes
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
(da2 cao3 jing1 she2)
「pocke」這個字源自中古英語「poket」，意為小型的「poke」（袋子）（以「et」或「ette」結尾是表示它是某物的迷你版，例如「cigarette」（香煙）是小的雪茄（cigar）的意思）。在中世紀時，「poke」指的是可以用來裝小型家畜家禽（例如小豬）到市場上去賣的袋子，短語「pig in a poke」即源於此——在許多歐洲語言中都有類似的說法。但「pig in a poke」也暗含一種警告：如果你打算在市場裡買一隻小豬，一定要先往袋子裡檢查一下。因為在十六世紀的歐洲有個常見的騙術，就是把小豬換成一隻貓來矇混。小豬會長成大豬，經濟上會變得很有價值，而貓除了幫農場抓老鼠很有用外，沒有什麼其他的價值。
買家應該要小心：貨物售出，概不退換，買家當提防。因此，若無良賣家要確保他們的欺騙伎倆在交易完成前不露餡，他們就該如同這俗語所說的，不要「let the cat out of the bag」（讓貓從袋子裡出來）。
英格蘭作家約翰‧海伍德（約西元一四九七～約一五八○年）在他的《Proverbes and Epigrammes》（諺語和箴言）中，便寫下一句箴言，包含了此片語，提醒人買貨之前須小心提防：
「I will neuer bye the pyg in the poke: [我絕不會買用袋子包起來的小豬]
Thers many a foule pyg in a feyre cloke. 」[掩蓋的表面下多是骯髒的豬]
(The police, not wanting to alert the suspect and risk them escaping, first deployed a strong police presence in the area and then closed in.)
(The gardener inadvertently disturbed a snake as he was clearing away the weeds, and a viper sprang out of the underbrush and gave him a nasty bite.)
let the cat out of the bag
The word “pocket” derives from the Middle English poket, a diminutive — ending in “et” or “ette,” as in a “cigarette” being a “small cigar” — version of poke. In the Middle Ages, a poke would have been a bag suitable for taking small livestock, such as a piglet, for sale at market. The phrase “pig in a poke” — which appears in many European languages in one form or the other — is a direct reference to this, but also alludes to a caution: If you are going to buy a piglet at market, make sure you look inside the bag first. A common trick at the time, in 16th century Europe, was to substitute a piglet — which would grow into an economically valuable pig — for a cat, which might be good for killing rats on the farm, and little else.
The buyer should be careful: caveat emptor, buyer beware. So, indeed, should the unscrupulous seller, who needs to make sure their deceit is sufficiently concealed until the deal is complete and the buyer has gone home. They should not, as the saying goes, “let the cat out of the bag.”
This phrase has come down to us as a warning not to let certain confidential information be known while it is useful to keep it concealed from certain other people; all will be revealed eventually, but for the time being it is important to keep the secret to ourselves.
The English writer John Heywood (c. 1497 – c. 1580), in his Proverbes and Epigrammes, wrote an epigram including the phrase, speaking of the need to be aware of what you are buying before you commit:
“I will neuer bye the pyg in the poke: [I will never buy the pig in the poke]
Thers many a foule pyg in a feyre cloke.” [So often you find a foul pig in a fair cloak]
The 13th strategy in the sanshiliu ji (Thirty-six Strategems, see Using Idioms on May 14) is 打草驚蛇, literally to beat the grass to scare the snakes or, by extension, to inadvertently alert an enemy to one’s presence or one’s plans. The imagery is quite self-explanatory, of course. The idiom, thought to derive from a reference in the nantang jinshi (A Modern History of the Southern Tang Dynasty) written by Song Dynasty scholar Zheng Wenbao, is now generally used in a negative sentence, that is, “don’t beat the grass and alert the snake,” to mean to avoid any action that will alert others to what you are doing.
A story in Zheng’s book tells of how a corrupt county magistrate of the Southern Tang named Wang Lu received a complaint about how one of his subordinates had been taking bribes, and he realized that he was also guilty of the crimes being brought before him. He wrote a commentary on the document, 汝雖打草，吾已?驚: “you have beaten the grass, and now I, like a snake concealed within, have been startled.” Wang had been alerted to the danger of being caught, even though the complaint was not directed at him.
It has appeared in other works of Chinese literature, too, including the Ming Dynasty novel the xiyou ji (Journey to the West). In chapter 67 there is the line 行者見了笑道：『妖怪走了，你還撲甚的了？』八戒道：『老豬在此打草驚蛇哩！』: “Seeing this, the monk said, laughing, ‘the monsters have gone, so why are you still thrashing around?’ Zhu Bajie said, ‘I’m just trying to scare off the snakes.’”(Paul Cooper, Taipei Times)
Remove your shoes; walk softly. We don’t want to let the cat out of the bag and wake them.
The police have got involved and are investigating our past shady deals. Now the cat’s really out of the bag.
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