The Grammarphobia Blog

Pots to cook in, pee in, melt in

Q: Please talk about the origins of the word “pot,” as in “pot luck,” “melting pot,” “potboiler.” Does it refer to mixing things together?

A: Almost all uses of “pot” are derived in one way or another from the word’s original sense: a cylindrical container to hold or heat liquids and other substances.

“Pot” comes from ancient Germanic, a reconstructed prehistoric language that preceded Old English and other Germanic languages.

In Old English, the word for the container was pott. Old Icelandic, Old Swedish, and Old Frisian, had similar words.

The term also showed up in medieval Latin and the Romance languages, suggesting an earlier, shared ancestor. We’re now getting into speculative territory, so we’ll let the Oxford English Dictionary do the speculating for us:

“The word in the Germanic and Romance languages and in post-classical Latin perhaps ultimately shows a loanword from a pre-Celtic language (perhaps Illyrian or perhaps a non-Indo-European substratal language), although a number of other etymologies have also been suggested.” (A substratal language influences one that replaces it.)

The dictionary adds that similar words in Welsh, Irish, and Scottish Gaelic apparently came from English rather than the other way around, as some word sleuths have suggested.

The earliest example for the term in the OED is from an Old English document in Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, an 1864 collection of Anglo-Saxon medical remedies and prayers, by Thomas Oswald Cockayne:

“Nim readstalede harhuna, & ysopo, & stemp & do on ænne neowna pott, an flering of ða harhuna & oðer of ysopo … forð þæt se pott beo full” (“Take red-stalked horehound, and hyssop, and pound, and put in a new pot, one layer of horehound, and another of hyssop, and a third of fresh butter, and again the herbs, and then the butter, until the pot is full”).

This recipe was for a remedy used to treat a pain in the chest. The mixture was boiled and wrung through a cloth, then taken cold in the morning and hot at night in beer or broth or water.

The OED notes that the use of “pot” for such a container was “rare in Old English, the more usual word being crocc,” or crock. The term “pot” was more common after the Norman Conquest, probably reinforced by pot in Anglo-Norman or Old French.

Most of the later uses of “pot” come from the early sense of a cylindrical container for holding or heating things. We won’t discuss all the dozens of “pot” usages, but here are some more common ones, and the first OED examples for them:

“Chamber pot,” a bowl usually kept in a bedroom for one to urinate or defecate in. The first OED citation is from a 1540 inventory (“Item a chamber potte”), but we prefer this later example about someone too lazy to get out of bed: “He will nocht rys to the pott bot pischis amang the strais [straw bedding]” (from a 1568 literary anthology compiled by the Scottish merchant George Bannatyne).

“Go to pot,” originally to be cut in pieces and cooked, but later to deteriorate or be ruined: “Poor Thorp, Lord Chief Justice, went to Pot, in plain English, he was Hang’d” (from The History of Wiggism, circa 1680, by Edmund Hickeringill).

“Potluck,” a meal without special preparation: “That, that pure sanguine complexion of yours may neuer be famisht with potte-lucke” (from Strange Newes, 1592, by the Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe). Later, a communal meal at which guests bring dishes to share: “their pot-luck and their ponies” (from the Aug. 13,1867, issue of the New York Times).

“Pot belly,” a large, protruding stomach: “A great pot Belly, a broad Back, and huge Legs and Arms, enough to squeeze one to pieces” (from The She-Gallants, a 1696 comedy by the English poet and playwright George Granville Lansdowne).

“Potboiler,” a creative work produced to make money by catering to popular taste: “Some others … in great measure compensate for the heaps of inconsequential trash, or pot-boilers (as they are called) which are obtruded upon the public view” (from a 1783 account by the Irish painter James Barry of an art exhibition in London).

“Potpie,” a pie filled with meat and other ingredients: “The snow birds are flying round your own door, where you may … shoot enough for a pot-pye, any day” (from The Pioneers, an 1823 novel by James Fennimore Cooper). The non-meat ingredients were originally fruit and later vegetables.

“Chimney pot,” the pipe at the top of a chimney to improve draft: “Why a church is with a steeple built; / And a house with a chimney-pot?” (from “The ‘How’ and the ‘Why,’ ” in Alfred Tennyson’s Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, 1830).

“Pot shot,” a random or easy gunshot: “Major Swayne … kept them under hedges firing pot shots, on which the enemy reoccupied the position” (from an 1843 Afghan journal by Florentia Wynch Sale, the wife of a British army officer). Earlier, it had meant shot for a cannon or a shot to kill food for the pot. And later, it came to mean random, easy, or unfounded criticism: “But I don’t think much of the pot-shot method of refutation” (from the November 1926 issue of the Forum, a New York magazine).

“Pot of gold,” a fortune or jackpot, real or imagined: “It is the barbarous old legend of the ‘pot of gold’ repeated in ten thousand new forms” (from the Feb. 16, 1847, issue of the New York Times).

“Pot,” the betting pool in poker and other gambling games: “He won the first twenty ‘pots,’ that is to say, the stake” (from Gambling Unmasked, 1847, by Jonathan H. Greene, an ex-gambler who campaigned against gambling).

“Pot roast,” meat, typically beef, cooked slowly in a covered pot or dish: “Sour Braten, or a Sour Pot-roast” (from the April 11, 1880, issue of the New York Times).

“Pot holder,” a pad for holding hot cooking implements: “the grimy apron was stuffed out with the dish-towel, pot-holder, red handkerchief, etc.” (from the March 1888 issue of Harper’s magazine).

“Pothole,” a depression from a defect in the surface of a road: “The surface of the bottom land that they were crossing was here and there broken up by fissures and ‘potholes,’ and some circumspection in their progress became necessary” (from A Waif of the Plains, an 1889 novel by Bret Harte). The potholes here were on a prairie trail.

“Melting pot,” a place where people of different races and cultures assimilate: “The French Canadians had a misgiving that if they too were cast into the American melting pot they would yield to that mysterious force which blends all foreign elements into one homogeneous mass” (from the Sept. 2, 1889, issue of the New York Times). Originally, it referred to a container in which metals or other materials were melted and mixed.

We’ll end with the “pot” that’s smoked: “She made him smoke pot and when he got jagged … she put him out on the street” (from a 1938 story in Black on Black, a 1973 collection of Chester B. Himes’s writings). “Jagged,” an old adjective for “drunk,” means “stoned” here.

Oxford says the marijuana sense of “pot” is of “uncertain and disputed” origin. It debunks the “most popular theory”—that it comes from potiguaya or potaguaya, “supposed Mexican Spanish words” for marijuana leaves, or from the phrase “potación de guaya, lit. ‘drink of grief,’ supposedly denoting a drink of wine or brandy in which marijuana buds were steeped.”

The dictionary says “no corroborating evidence has been found to support the use of any of these terms in Spanish.”

Alternatively, the OED adds, the use of “pot” for marijuana may somehow be connected to the original sense of “pot” or to the noun “pod,” though it doesn’t offer any evidence for such connections.

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