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.

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