A cook’s best friend, however.
Dear Word Detective: I have a friend that sometimes calls people “pot lickers.” I don’t think it sounds very good. What does it mean? — Darlene.
It certainly doesn’t sound good, but that’s the whole point. As an insult or derogatory term, “pot licker” has a nice ring to it, and since most people will have no idea of what it means, there’s the added sense of superiority that comes from confusing your adversary as well as insulting him or her. I knew a fellow once who would occasionally refer to politicians he didn’t like as “pantaloons.” Had there been any of his targets within earshot, they would have understood the slur only if they had known that “pantaloon” is the Anglicized form of “Pantalone,” a stock character in the Italian “commedia dell’arte” (comedy theater) of the 16th century. “Pantalone” was usually depicted as a demented old man clad in short, loose-fitting trousers, an image Shakespeare invoked in his play As You Like It (“… the lean and slippered pantaloon … his big manly voice, turning again toward childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound.”). That may seem like a pretty obscure insult, but Pantalone was famous enough that his name, filtered through “pantaloon,” eventually gave us the English word “pants.”
As far as I know, Shakespeare never called anyone a “pot licker,” but I suspect he would have jumped at the chance had he been familiar with the insult. Applied to a human being, “pot licker” means a low and contemptible person, one with no pride and no principles. A “pot licker” is a bottom-feeder, a low-life whose career ambitions extend no further up the food chain than to be a “toady” (a fawning sycophant or yes-man, so-called after the “toad-eaters” who, back in the 17th century, actually ate toads as part of a traveling medicine man’s demonstration of bogus “antidotes” to poison). “Pot lickers” give hangers-on a bad name.
As a personal insult, “pot licker” dates back to the 1830s and tends to be heard mostly in the Southern US, though it is apparently also common in the Caribbean. In its literal and original sense, however, “pot licker” was not a person at all. A “pot licker” is a mongrel dog, most often a nondescript hound mix, no good for hunting and generally considered worthless. (I’m just reporting. No dog, of course, is worthless, and several of my best friends have been mutts.) The key to a dog being considered a “pot licker” is its timidity and complete lack of spirit, including an unwillingness to bristle or snarl even when abused. The only reward such a dog deserves, in this view, is to lick cooking pots clean after the meal is served. Compared to a well-trained hunting dog, considered very valuable in such circles, being a “pot licker” is about as low as a dog can go.
While being called a “pot licker” is certainly a serious insult to a human, it’s arguably not quite as bad as being labeled a “boot licker.” First appearing in the mid-19th century, “boot licker,” meaning a person so subservient that they figuratively lick the boots of their master, carries even stronger connotations of abject servility than “pot licker.”