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How Do You Spell "Shitepoke?"

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

This is all you usually see of a shitepoke. They're shy.

My father had stories he’d tell, time and time again, and one of them was from his one-room schoolhouse when he was a farm boy in Iowa. The teacher asked the kids to make a list of all the birds they knew, and they were busy scratching away with their pencils when one boy raised his hand and asked, “Ma’am, how do you spell “shitepoke?”

Dad would always laugh, sometimes with a little snort, when he hit the punchline on that story. And I would laugh too, but I never quite got what was so funny about the story. I thought it was quaint that a child would ask the teacher to spell a colloquial name of a bird—“shitepoke” is an old country name for a heron. Kind of a funny name. I wondered about it then, and I've been wondering about it until just today.

I spent the day in my little canoe, drifting along on Seneca Lake and Wolf Run, messing about with herons. I got close to two green herons and three great blues, banging away with my 300 mm. lens, trying to get a decent photograph. The herons were less than thrilled with my attentions. One of my sharper photos was this one.

A dark but otherwise o.k. portrait of a green heron, only slightly compromised by the giant dollop of fish emulsion exiting its cloaca.

I looked at that photo, thinking at first the white thing was a branch, and when I realized what I’d photographed, I burst out laughing. And, perhaps the recipient of a cosmic tap on the shoulder by my Dear Old Dad, I started to think about the name, “shitepoke.” Now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the derivation of “shite.” It’s a polite way to pronounce it, to make the i long, but it’s still feces. And poke? What IS a shitepoke? And suddenly, like a bolt, it hit me that  "poke" is an archaic word for a sack or a bag. Pig in a poke. So “shitepoke” means “sh-tsack.” Aggggh!

Anyone who’s ever flushed a heron and watched it fly away, a streamer of white trailing out behind it, knows what a descriptive name that is. "Chalkline" is another colloquial name for a heron. Shitepoke. I….love….it.

I sat alone in my canoe in the quiet little cove, laughing until I made the boat rock, laughing until the ripples spread out around me, and I felt my daddy right there, laughing with me. I’ve been trying for most of my 50 years to figure out what was so funny about that story. DOD, I finally got it.


Oh Julie! I grew up in southern Ohio calling them shitepokes and my family members still do. It never once ocurred to me what it means. You are so funny and smart!

I've heard that expression but up here the country name is "Slough pumper"

My eyes zeroed in on that poo stream right away.

I never heard "shitepoke," but the name fits, doesn't it?

I have a resident Green Heron at my pond this year, and I'll be blessed if I can get any kind of decent photo of him - he flushes so easily. Still, I'm glad to know he is there.

Many things still make me think of my DOD, gone these 20 years. I still miss him, every day.


Aww--Julie--this post is funny and tender and informative, all mixed up in one wonderful piece.

It also makes me wonder about the origin of the name of a section of the city I live near. There is a section named Shipoke--pronounced SHY-poke. No idea where the name came from, but since it is right on the river banks, and we do have herons flying, I'm wondering.

"he flushes so easily" ... ohhhhh Katdoc.

Nice combination of the ridiculous and the sublime, Julie.

That's a new one on me! Too too funny! Glad you enjoyed the laugh with you dad!

Now you have it. Shitepoke has meaning. Next time I flush herons, I'll know what to look for and laugh as you did. And I'll remember you and your dear Dad, too. I would love to have known him. You need to get that canoe out more often ;-)

Lynne, I'd think a sloughpumper would be an American bittern...something we're short of in Southern Ohio. Isn't there another special name for a green heron?

KG Mom, you're onto something! Don't you love knowing that a section of your town might be named "Sh-tbag?"

And you guys wanna know what's wonderful about the Web? Google "shitepoke," and this post pops up on the first page, #8 out of about 5,000 entries. Think of the curiosity seekers it could lead to this blog. No wonder the readership is so diverse and interesting!

I really am laughing out loud. Julie, you are funny and heartwarming at the same time.

If you google "colloquial name for heron" this blog post is #1 on the list!
Who'd have thought :0)
Caroline in South Dakota

I have just laughed myself limp, especially since my grandfather used to refer to all us kids as "Shitepoke". I never had any idea...

Sweet ol' Grampa. My interaction with Charlie consisted of him trying to poke me with his cane, a ferocious look on his face. Sometimes, in a show of affection, he would call me over to look at his frostbitten toes.

Well, I'll never look at herons the same way again! That's so funny - I had never even heard that name for them. I guess there's nothing like a good poo joke.

For your edification, here's a comment from a friend who doesn't like, do the Google account thing.

"I don't think the pronunciation has much to do with politeness. Shite (with a long i) is a recognized variant, probably used most commonly in the UK and some former Commonwealth nations. First few times I heard it was from ANZUK military in the Vietnam era. They weren't particularly polite folks, by the way. I wondered then whether it might be cognate with the German Scheisse, but I don't think so.

Really...I wouldn't shite you."

Interesting how many comments this post has provoked...

A few years ago, as I was driving along a great blue heron arose flying out of roadside drainage ditch, flying eye level for awhile besides my car and then lifting gracefully up up above eye level. Just as I was marveling at its lyrical grace and elegance, it let go with what you refer to as "the giant dollop of fish emulsion exiting its cloaca".

Well that was an eye opener to say the lie, it looked like it was dropping an entire bucket of white paint as it flew.

Even though the GBH had the consideration not to fly drectly over my car, I shut my sun roof anyway. Sort of a reflexive reaction.

LOG: "flushes easily," LOL!! I didn't even realize I had made that joke!


Thank you for the experience! I've watched the big herons fly many a time here in AZ but never seen one empty out.

My sweet and saintly Grandpa used occasionally to tell me I was full of stewed prunes. I was many years grown before it clicked, and I was a bit shocked when it did.

When I was growing up in North Carolina, my father's family used the word shitepoke to refer to herons. I never knew what it meant or where it came from. I had forgotten the word until I ran across it in an old Robert Ruark essay and Google'd it. That led me to your explanation.

Thanks for solving a childhood mystery in such a hunorous way!

One could do worse than come up on the first page when you google Shitepoke. Neil, I hope you come back. There's lots more whitewash where this came from.

Amazed nobody mentioned the alternate name for the shitepoke is "shagpoke". Google will give you a wealth of hits on that too. I grew up in the Ohio Valley (Kentucky side), and I was taught both names by my Dad, but that "shitepoke" was the "correct" one.

Your literal translation may be correct - I took the "shite" part literally but I think the "poke" part is more at the common meaning of the word, as in to "jab". It is, after all, a long-beaked bird. But who knows?

Excellent blog.

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