I wonder what this phrase means in the following: get pokey. I fail to find out that meaning though I tried in dictionary or Google.

Bright and affectionate, Tad was also wholly undisciplined. The nine-year-old boy could still not dress himself, and, despite the efforts of a series of tutors, he could neither read nor write. Lincoln refused to worry over his slowness in such matters. “Let him run,” said his father; “there's time enough yet for him to learn his letters and get pokey.”

From David Herbert Donald's Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 1995).

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    So it should be noted that the terminology is that of 150 years ago. – Hot Licks Feb 13 '18 at 1:01
  • @HotLicks 1986 G. Keillor Lake Wobegon Days 135 — “I poked along over the Post Toasties as long as I could, then my mother sent me out to pick tomatoes.” – tchrist Feb 13 '18 at 2:02
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    @tchrist - Yeah, "pokey" meaning slow is current vernacular (or at least was 40 years ago). But the OP's quote is not obviously using the same sense (though it could be, depending on how you read it). – Hot Licks Feb 13 '18 at 2:06
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    @HotLicks It's contrasting "let him run" with "time enough to get pokey"; those seem to me like pretty obvious opposites when contrasted that way. – tchrist Feb 13 '18 at 2:07

This meaning of pokey is given by MacMillan Dictionary

(American) moving or doing something very slowly, in a way that is annoying.

  • This pokey computer is driving me crazy!

So the sense of “get pokey” referring to the hyperactive child is to become slow, quiet.

The above connotation of pokey (also poky) is from the mid-19th century according to The Dictionary of American Slang:

Slow; dawdling; sluggish : What a pokey waiter (1856+)

and problaly derives from an earlier sense of confined, cramped according to The Word Detective:

“Poky” also acquired the meaning of “dull, narrow-minded and slow” here in the US, probably from that same sense of “cramped.”


from 'The Lincoln Forum _ Rediscovering Abraham Lincoln'

google books

Abe Lincoln commented that his son Tad could be a kid now (age 12) and later as he grew up 'get pokey'. The only explanation I could find of a presidental comment over 100+ years ago:

Lincoln acknowledged as he worried that the unschooled Tad would get pokey - by which the president meant that his son would lose his exuberant sense of freedom

Meaning to me: let the kid be a kid, he would grow up. Lincoln and his wife were described in this link as being 'permissive/laissez faire' parents.

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    It just meant slow down and dawdle. To poke means “To potter about; to move or work in a desultory, ineffective, or dawdling way.” – tchrist Feb 13 '18 at 1:29

there's time enough yet for him [to learn his letters and get pokey].

Most of the comments here refer to pokey in the contemporary stereotypical sense of being slow or dawdling. But there may be another, entirely different meaning to the word (depending on context), which is after all derived from the root, poke (according to Webster's dictionary): to push, prod, or jab. That particular sense of the word is clearly in agreement with Mr. Lincoln's intended context, to learn (or study).

Scholarship involves a lot of study, which involves a lot of poking, in the sense of pushing or prodding, and sticking one's nose into -- books, ideas, etc. That must be what Mr. Lincoln meant by his choice of wording, get pokey.

Even his use of the phrase there's time enough yet seems to suggest that the boy was already dawdling, and slow -- with regard to his studies. Mr. Lincoln was defending his son's education, or the lack thereof -- from criticism.

In that rather awkward social position of being subjected to what must have seemed like intense criticism or concern about the well-being of his son (the apple of his eye, his pride and joy) -- Mr. Lincoln used the phrase get pokey creatively: that is, with very original, unusual -- yet correct -- usage. He may have actually attempted to coin a phrase, with some success.

Many of the country folk with whom Abraham Lincoln was raised valued hard work and considered reading a lazy vocation. Yet Mr. Lincoln felt differently about it. He felt learning was a worthwhile endeavor. The man was exceptionally clever, so I wouldn't be surprised even if he was thinking of the phrase get pokey as some sort of sly pun, for his own private amusement -- and for those in his audience who might somehow 'get it'.

Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that pokey is not listed in the Webster's dictionary published in 1856, and that various slang uses of the word may only date to ca 1919 or other more recent times. By 1884, following the Civil War, Reconstruction, and deaths of Tad Lincoln and both of his parents -- pokey had mysteriously acquired the meaning of dull, stupid, or slow.

In conclusion, since there are both formal and informal meanings for the root, poke, and more than one or two completely different meanings (mostly slang) for pokey -- one is left to take into consideration Abraham Lincoln's personality and the surrounding context of his statement, in order to derive real meaning from it. We might also be compelled to speculate on how politics may have played into the strange manner in which a phrase coined by Abraham Lincoln eventually became adopted into common usage.

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    A very informed answer, with which I am a little excited. My headache is cleared out. Thank you. – Mankak Feb 17 '18 at 0:04

Lincoln was using "pokey" in an older sense, to mean something like serious and boring. The OED Online (unfortunately paywalled) has this definition for poky (also sometimes spelled pokey):

3.a. Unstimulating, dull; concerned with petty matters or narrow interests; dawdling, slow. Cf. POKING adj. 2. Now chiefly N. Amer.

Looking at the attestations, it appears that the senses suggested in bold evolved into the third clause (dawdling, slow); the early examples (four from 1828 to 1888) all use the "dull" sense of the word, and it is not until the 1932 attestation that the "dawdling" sense emerges. An 1854 quote, almost contemporaneous with Lincoln's quote, contrasts liveliness and pokiness in the same way that Lincoln did (bolding added):

All I want is . . . to be more amused and more merry, and less poky and morose and dry and grave!
("The Dowager Lady Lyttelton to Lady Lyttelton", 1854, collected in Correspondence of Sarah Spencer, Lady Lyttelton, 1787-1870)

Thus Lincoln wanted his son to have time to play, before he needed to buckle down and act serious.

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