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shameless pleading


We’ll even throw in a “Sheep Gone Wild” DVD.

Dear Word Detective: In New Zealand we call a plastic jar a “pottle.” Who else in the world has “pottle” for this usage? Why won’t the yanks and pommies understand me? — Jimmy Langrish, Wellington, New Zealand.

Beats me. Perhaps they all watch too much TV, and their brains have rotted. Do you have TV down there in, let’s see, “New Zealand”? Do you have any oil? Answer the second question first. Anyway, if you send us your oil, we’ll send you TV, and after a while you won’t miss your oil. Want some Coca-Cola? Don’t be afraid. We like you.

pottle08.pngI suspect that a ten-second primer on “yanks and pommies” is in order for some of my readers. “Yank” (short for “yankee”), of course, means a person from the USA, and while the origin of the term is disputed, it most likely derives from “Jan Kees” (or “John Cheese”), an insult originally used by the Dutch settlers of New York against later English arrivals. “Pommy” (or just “pom”) is Australian/New Zealand slang for an English person, and derives from “pomegranate,” word play for “Jimmy Grant,” which, in turn, was 19th century rhyming slang for “immigrant” (immigrants during that period coming primarily from England). The popular story about “pom” standing for “Prisoner of Her Majesty” (i.e., British convicts exiled to Australia) is, incidentally, bunk.

I can confirm that “pottle” is not in common use in the US, although major dictionaries do acknowledge its existence. In this neck of the woods, however, a “pottle” must evidently be of a certain size. The American Heritage Dictionary, for instance, defines “pottle” as “a pot or drinking vessel with a capacity of 2.0 quarts,” and Merriam-Webster concurs with “a container holding a half gallon (1.9 liters).”

That specific volume, it seems, is not a recent development for “pottle.” When “pottle” first appeared in English in the early 14th century, it usually meant a half-gallon pot or tankard, and “pottle” itself was used until relatively recently as a measure of volume equal to two quarts, much as we use “gallon” or “cup” today (“In measuring beer or ale, two pints make one quart; two quarts make one pottle; two pottles make one gallon,” Lima (Ohio) News, 1940).

In recent years, however, “pottle” seems to have lost that “half gallon” connotation in casual usage and serves as simply another name for “bottle” (to which it is unrelated), “cup” or “jar.” Ironically, this more general use harks back to the root of “pottle,” which was adopted from the Old French “potel,” meaning “small pot,” based in turn on the Latin “pottus,” also, not surprisingly, the root of our modern “pot.”

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