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Potluck

Does a fanatical devotion to Cool Whip cause dementia, or is it the other way round?

Dear Word Detective:   My wife and I were wondering what the origin of the word  “potluck” is.  Please do tell us, so we can actually get some sleep and have more joy in our lives. — Marcus Givens.

Chill, dude.  “Potluck” is nothing to worry about.  Unless, of course, you live where I do and can’t weasel out of an invitation to one.  The first time I went to a potluck around here I had  pictured hearty soups, fresh-baked rolls, home-made pies and maybe even cake.  I live for cake.  Unfortunately, it turns out that there are people walking among us who do not regard the words “White Castle Casserole” as a joke.  These are, incidentally, the same people who believe that what most cakes lack is lots and lots of salt.  And possibly bacon.  Everything goes with bacon.  Hey, everybody, Tammy brought her bacon ice cream!

As English words go, “potluck” is actually pretty straightforward.  It’s simply a combination of “pot,” in the sense of “cooking pot,” and “luck,” in the standard sense of “chance or fortune.”  When “potluck” first came into use in English in the late 16th century, it carried the sense of “whatever is available to eat” (i.e., already cooked in the pot), specifically in the context of a guest invited to dine on the spur of the moment, without special preparations having been made.  Early on, the form “to take potluck” became popular (“I accepted Mr Leeke’s invitation to take pot-luck with him and returned to Page’s in the evening,” 1810), a usage still heard today.  By the 20th century, “to take potluck” had acquired a more general sense of “to take what comes” or “to take one’s chances” in nearly any context (“Don’t be content to take ‘pot-luck’ on the future,” 1943).

In mid-19th century America, “potluck” gained a new meaning, that of a communal meal where each guest brings a dish to be shared.  The Oxford English Dictionary adds “… sometimes without arranging beforehand which dish to bring,” but most potlucks I’ve been to have involved at least some rudimentary planning (“… and Larry will bring his beer-battered Twinkies”).  Potluck dinners are popular as fund-raising occasions and at family reunions.

One popular “urban legend” about the word “potluck” is that it is drawn from the Native American (Chinook) word “potlatch.”  There is, at first glance, a spooky similarity between a “potluck” dinner and the “potlatch” of the tribes of the northwestern United States and Canada.  The “potlatch” is a ceremonial feast where, in addition to dining, dancing and singing, participants distribute their possessions to others and share their wealth with their community.  But while the two words resemble each other, and the humble “potluck” dinner and the far more elaborate and meaningful “potlatch” ceremony share a communal theme, there is no actual connection between the words.

13 comments to Potluck

  • me and my friends used to participate on a fund raising event for the protection of panda bears~`~

  • Thanks for that. We’re having a little potluck party this week, kind of for Xmas I guess and I’ve been trying to find something special to take.. found some awesome ideas at this potluck recipes site. You know, someone should invent a website where you can write what you’ll be taking, and it would make sure no one brings the same thing!

  • Fleming

    Very entertaining article. Interesting about the change from the original meaning to the American, “Everybody bring something.” I suggest the addition of an alternate term, “potbadluck”, as when 9/10 of the contributions are soggy tuna fish sandwiches.

  • […] to potlatch, a Native American “feast, often lasting several days,” according to the Word Detective, “there is no actual connection between the […]

  • B

    @Jermaine…its called a spreadsheet, or Google Docs

  • Ted Fish

    I was read a short story long ago that called for everyone in a community to provide a portion of their best wine into a common vessel, and then to share the blend with one another. Everyone emptied a flask into the pot as required. But when it was sampled, it turned out to be pure water. THAT is the biggest downside to potluck. The upside? It provides an opportunity to be truly generous, often anonymously!

  • Anthony

    I’m determined to find a connection between these two words. There is one, nomatter how far back it goes. The themes and words are far too similar to have originated separately.

    • Paulee

      Yeah @anthony, I am completely with you on that! Once sandwiches came into play people were probably praying for no more trays of sandwiches, using them since others kept talking about tuna sandwiches, and then threw the luck in there so their prayers could hopefully come true haha But like you said they are way too similar.

    • There is such a thing as coincidence. The words clearly have developed independently and no amount of wishful thinking can create an imagined common origin.

  • Scsrlette

    This is funny!

  • Peter

    Any luck on this Anthony?

  • Alaura Timmons

    To say they’re not connected seems ignorant. From an acadian in Nova Scotia where the British and indigenous collided …. the fact that they were banned from 1884 until 1951 and the theory is “perhaps around 1930/depression Britain” sounds oblivious. It’s one generation (20 yrs) apart, kids aren’t racist and always put their spin on things so it seems like human nature at its finest. Potlucks are held at funerals, weddings, reunions, etc. It’s not the same now but at some point it was a cultural understanding and connection to the event.

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