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shameless pleading

Pot Licker

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.”

19 comments to Pot Licker

  • Yael

    Hmph, it appears my attempt to use Hebrew letters in the above comment had produced only a row of question-marks. Good thing I added a transliteration of sorts, then.

  • Yael

    Being a Hebrew-speaker (natively), this phrase immediately rang a bell for me; we have a very similar phrase, ‘???????? ?????????’ (since I can hardly attempt proper IPA transliteration, the approximate ‘melahech pinkah’ would have to do). According to some etymological sources I just looked up, it has originated in the Talmud, in Aramaic, and probably meant a glutton, but later (and today) came to mean a lowly sycophant, just as you describe. I wonder if the way in which this phrase came into English has at some point passed through Jewish sources?

  • danthelawyer

    Could it not also be related to “pot liquor”? See http://bit.ly/Eg8Rz

  • The Laramie Potlickers are a group of folks in Wyoming who have weekly potlucks.

  • Donnie

    Down on the Texas gulf coast we call people who rush in to fish next to you after catching a fish pot lickers.

  • Frank Knapp

    My Father use to call someone he was mad at a `Pot Licker` Meaning someone that licked a bed pan! The first I heard him use said insult was back in the 1940!s. Who know`s; Maybe he got it wrong????

    • That was basically the connotation in our family. My grandmother (b. 1895) used it to describe the worst people she knew…it was for her the absolute worst insult to level upon someone. And for her family, it was one who re-used the spit out tobacco in the spittoons. (She was a French-Canadian immigrant to Michigan.)

      My dad used the term very frequently when he got mad at drivers on the road, and we kids got such a kick out of it that we began using it commonly.

      Since he passed away, we use it as a term of affection and call our kids little pot lickers just to keep the phrase alive.

  • HytonedSOB

    Have you ever heard the expression ` He doesn`t have a pot to piss in`? That is the pot they are talking about1

  • jimmy

    pot licker –where i was raised in the mountains of tennessee the liquid in a pot of mustard / turnip greens was called pot licker , really good stuff

    • Katherine

      The Southern term is “potlikker” it refers to the liquid left after cooking collard greens.

      • Patrick

        Both spellings are correct. It’s just the remaing liquid after cooking greens in large amounts, even spinach and agrugula have potlikker, usually has ham hocks or some kind of seasoning in it as well. At the restaurant I cook at in TX we spell it pot licker, but I’ve seen potlikker at previous establishments.

  • Joe Bob

    Potlicker is most certainly a subservient person, perhaps worse than the yes man. A scavenging idealess man, giving not ideas or action. That is the history of the term. Now, it can almost hold even with the terms “bitch” or “nigger” in their duality of insult and affection. Potlicker may gain ground in the coming years as a hipster badge of adoration and loyalty. We shall see.

    • D H

      Growing up in the 50′s & 60′s my dad called me that all the time but only when I was being impetuous; and he always had a big smile on his face when saying it.

  • Olivia B

    I once read the term ‘pot licker’ in a poem about a Pakistani wedding, of all things. In this case, a ‘pot licker’ was said to be a woman who ‘brought on the rain’. I have no idea if this was symbolic… perhaps meaning somebody who caused misery? Or maybe it literally meant somebody who made it rain. I don’t know.

  • The term “potlicker” as told to me by my dad was used in Kentucky and my native Indiana as someone who “licked the slop jar”. Slop jar being the jar used during the night to avoid having to go all the way to the outhouse.

  • After reading everyone’s responses, I’m going to assume that like many slang terms, “Potlicker” has been adapted to have several slightly different (but similar) meanings, depending on your location…

    When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, my grandpa used to use it all the time – I have since adopted it as my alltime favorite insult and have regularly used it for 25 years…

    As a kid, when I asked my grandpa about it, he said that during the depression, there were people who were so poor and so hungry that they would knock on peoples doors at dinnertime and beg to “lick the pots” just to get a little bit of food to eat, so although slightly different, it ultimately has a meaning very similar to the ones discussed here – Basically a potlicker is a “bum”.

    I had never heard it from anyone else, anywhere, until I heard it in Talledega Nights. As soon as that movie came out, all my friends texted me and said they “stole” my word haha.

  • when I was young a retired railroad man told me after being kicked out of the kitchen by his wife for using the word what it mend. “Calvin what does potlicker mean?” I asked. and he said, “Now the women folk won’t like me telling you this, so don’t go telling them I told you . See a potlicker is a person who lick bed pots. ” “A bed pot?” “A bed pot is what in the old day we kept under the bed to pee in so you won’t have to go out to the outhouse in the middle of the night .”

    Also heard it use for the begger in the depression era. BUT I USE THE TERM AS CALVIN DID, DAMN POTLICKERS.

  • Dave

    The older men I knew, during my Ozarks blue-collar upbringing in the 50s, used “potlicker” as a term of derision for dogs that had no spirit, no self-respect and would not hunt. (It was applied to humans who would not work and had no principles.) It was often conjoined with “biscuit-eatin’”, a term referring to a dog so lost to good conduct that it would steal biscuits off the table and eat them when its master’s back was turned. Similarly, “egg-suckin’” was a dog that would raid the henhouse it was sworn to protect from varmints and eat the fresh eggs before the farm wife collected them. To be called all three usually meant a canine had done something really, really bad.

  • Mark

    grandma didnt like me much!!

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