The Grammarphobia Blog

In search of powting

Q: I recently noticed the term “powting” in a news story that suggested it means doing something illegal while pretending to do something legal. The context was landlords who were engaged in powting to avoid tenants they didn’t want.

A: We could find nothing about this specific use of “powting” or “powt,” either in the scholarly literature, slang dictionaries, or on the Internet.

Most of the Google hits were mistaken spellings of “pouting” and “pout,” as in sullen or seductive lips. So we’ll assume that this is a spontaneous slang usage that will either catch on or die out.

But verbs written as “powt” and “powter” have had other meanings, probably unrelated to the one you’ve noticed.

For example, Green’s Dictionary of Slang (Vol. 3) has an entry for a verb spelled variously as “powter,” “polter,” or “poulter.” It has two meanings—“to work carelessly” and “to potter about.” The word is Scottish but originated in Ulster, according to Green’s.

We found similar words in several 18th- and 19th-century dictionaries, some of them devoted to archaic and provincial words. The verb “powt” has been defined as meaning to poke, to stir a fire, or to feel around in the dark.

And in an apparent extension of those meanings, some dialect dictionaries say, the verb has also meant to malinger on the job. (We can understand the connection here, from poking in a literal sense to aimlessly poking around.)

Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (1896-1905) says “powt” meant “to move the hand uncertainly as a person working in the dark,” as well as “to set to work aimlessly, slowly or unwillingly.” And Wright defines the participial adjective “powting” as “unskilful and slow at work; harassed by poverty and hard labour.”

John Jamieson’s Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1825) says the verb “powt” meant “to make short and as it were convulsive motions with the hands or feet.” Similarly, Jamieson says, the noun “powt” was “a short and kind of convulsive motion. … Perhaps from Fr. pat, paute, the paw or foot.”

Jamieson defines the verb “powter” as meaning both “to rummage in the dark” and “to do little easy jobs.” That latter meaning, he says, “seems merely a secondary sense of Pouter, to poke.”

But rather than rummage in the dark we’ll leave it at that. We’ll just add that there’s probably little or no connection between the “powt” that meant to work slowly and the one you came across that apparently means to do something illegal. But that last one could easily land someone in the pokey.

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