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A thousand times no.

Dear Word Detective:  All through my adolescent and adult life I have used the word “renege” when it comes to someone backing out of a deal or situation.  As I try to look around Google and others I find I have no clue how to find what you find and cannot on my own understand where and when this word became common knowledge.  I beg of you to help me and my wife understand the full depth of this one single word. — Dan Drenberg.

This is interesting.  I’ve been getting an increasing number of questions from my readers couched in tones of near-desperation, imploring me to explain words or phrases so that the questioner might snatch a moment’s sleep for the first time in a month, get their housework done before the dog hair suffocates the goldfish, or just generally go back to leading a normal, ho-hum existence.  My hunch is that it’s really all about what the folks on the TV call, with unseemly perkiness, “the global economic meltdown.”  Understandably reluctant to meditate too long on the prospect of fighting the cat for the last can of Fancy Feast, people offload their anxiety into worrying about the provenance of “ampersand” or “pedigree.”   Hey, it’s OK with me, and I’m glad to help.  Your cloud is my tiny silver bailout.

All things considered, “renege” is actually a pretty straightforward word, snapped together from solid Latin roots.  “Renege” first appeared in English in the mid-16th century (with the now-archaic meaning of “to deny, renounce, abandon or desert”), but it wasn’t until the late 18th century that it acquired its modern meaning of, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “To change one’s mind, to recant; to break one’s word; to go back on a promise or undertaking or contract; to disappoint expectations.”  Incidentally, “renege” is sometimes spelled “renegue” outside the US.

As I said, “renege” is built from Latin roots, the prefix “re” plus the verb stem “negare,” meaning “to deny” (and which also gave us our modern English “negative,” “deny” and several other words).  The only slightly sticky part is that “re.”  Ordinarily, “re” appended to a verb signals repetition or restoration, as in “renew” (make new again), “recreate” (make again), “refer” (literally “to carry back”), and so on.  In this case, however, the “re” acts as an intensive modifier, meaning “strongly,” so “renegare” carries the meaning of “to deny strongly or completely; to refuse.”  Thus to “renege” on a promise is to flatly refuse to keep it.

“Renege” doesn’t play a large role in most people’s vocabularies (unless you’re a banker, I suppose).  It’s the slightly strange hat or clunky shoes we almost never wear.  But “renege” has a famous relative.  When that Latin “renegare” worked its way through Spanish, it became the noun  “renegado,” meaning  someone who denies or renounces their religious faith (specifically, in medieval Spain, a Christian who became a Muslim).  Brought into English in the late 16th century, “renegado” became our “renegade,” eventually arriving at the more general meaning of “one who deserts a party, person, or principle; a turncoat.”

Potter’s field

Return to sender.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the name “potter’s field” come from? — Denise Caldara.

Gee, I’m glad you asked that question.  I’ve been watching the financial news a lot lately, and I’ve noticed that I’ve been waking up every day in the kind of wide-eyed euphoria I remember from my childhood Christmas mornings.  I can hardly wait to go online and see what hijinks those little scamps on Wall Street have been up to while I slept, which hitherto ho-hum sector of our so-called economy is suddenly circling the drain and only salvageable with the last of the change hiding under my couch cushions.  My neighbors, in fact, have begun to complain about my constant giggling.

So it’s a good thing that you picked this moment to raise the specter of burial in an unmarked pauper’s grave.  I feel better already.

A “potter’s field” is a piece of land used as a burial place for the poor or, in some places, strangers to the community.  Most large cities in the world today have a “potter’s field.”  New York City, for instance, has used Hart Island, in Long Island Sound off the eastern edge of the Bronx, for burial of the indigent since the Civil War.  Several New York City parks, including Washington Square Park, had previously been used by the city as “potter’s fields.”

I suspect that many people assume that the “potter’s field” takes its name from someone named Potter, and occasionally you’ll see the term incorrectly capitalized.  Personally, I can’t help associating “potter’s field” with the character of mean old Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the cruel tycoon who, in the film’s “what if” segment, transformed cozy Bedford Falls into the dismal “Pottersville.”

But the term “potter’s field” comes from the Bible, specifically the Gospel of Matthew.  When Judas Iscariot was overcome with remorse for accepting thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus, he returned the coins to the temple.  The priests, however, could not accept “blood money” (money used to purchase the death of a person), so they used it to buy land on which to bury the poor and foreigners.  The land they bought was rich in clay and had been owned by a pot-maker, so it was known henceforth as “potter’s field.”  The actual site of the original “potter’s field,” although its location is in dispute today, was also known as “Aceldama,” which is an Aramaic word meaning “field of blood.”

Apart from its use in translations of the Bible, the first appearance of “potter’s field” in English dates to 1777 (“I took a walk into the Potter’s Field, a burying ground between the new stone prison and the hospital,” John Adams).  By 1906 the phrase was being used figuratively, as it still is, to mean a place of dishonor and abandonment (“When I wrote a letter … you did not put it in the respectable part of the magazine, but interred it in that ‘potter’s field,’ the Editor’s Drawer,” Mark Twain).


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.