Origins of the word 'Potluck'

We were having a discussion @ work, which led to me analysing the origins of the word. Heres what I found

Potluck — whatever happens to be available especially when offered to an unexpected guest or when brought by guests and shared by all; “having arrived unannounced we had to take potluck”; “a potluck supper”

In North America, the term “potluck” has been around for a long time. Yet, when I looked in my Concise Oxford Dictionary, the term was not listed, although our local native tradition, the potlatch,  was defined. It was interesting to ponder the word’s various meanings.

     The word’s primary meaning, according to the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, is “the regular meal available to a guest for whom no special preparations have been made.” It is only in the second meaning as “a communal meal to which people bring food to share” that the definition matches our understanding of the word.

     The other common definition is “whatever is offered or available in given circumstances or at a given time.” From this last meaning comes the title of this piece, and new ways of understanding the word.

     We give according to our situation at any time in our lives. If we have more, we can give more. If less, then a smaller contribution is understood to be part of our “given circumstances.” In its first meaning, the term is used like this in Canadian homes: “It’s getting late, would you like to stay for dinner? You’ll have to take potluck.” By this we mean that we may have to add extra dishes to make the meal enough for the unexpected guest.

     This sense of the unexpected is what makes the potluck such a lovely idea. And now, I wonder, why is this term so similar to the word, potlatch? The word potluck originated in 1592, a time when we were making first contact with the native people who used the word potlatch. Interesting! In the potlatch, native families demonstrated their wealth by giving away more than their neighbours. Those that could give more, would win the highest status.  It seems to me that the native word matches at least some of the meanings of potluck.

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One thought on “Origins of the word 'Potluck'”

  1. Actually the native people who used the word “potlatch” were the Nootka (who call themselves Nuu-chah-nulth IIRC) on the west coast of Canada. Their word wasn’t borrowed into English until the 19th century, about the time the practice itself was outlawed.

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