Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
Another eggcorn sent in by Jan Freeman’s readers is “potlatch” for “potluck” (See http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas … n_ove.html for the report, http://eggcorns.lascribe.net/forum/view … hp?id=3482 for my background on Freeman’s eggcorn invitation).
At a potluck meal guests bring dishes and everything is shared. The word “potluck” is derived from the notion of going for a meal at someone’s house and taking the luck of the pot. English has hosted the “taking a chance” sense of “potluck.” since at least the sixteenth century. It is not clear exactly when “potluck” took on the meaning of a meal to which many people contribute, but the word was being used this way by the early 1800s.
“Potlatch” was borrowed in the nineteenth century from the Chinook trade language of the Pacific Coast first nations people. The word originally referred to a ceremonial event where food and gifts were provided for the guests.
In current idiom, especially in Alaska, the American Northwest, and the Canadian West, “potlatch” often is used to describe any lavish communal meal. An eggcornical confusion between a potluck and a potlatch may have contributed the use of the word “potlatch” in this broader sense (so the OED speculates). The Wikipedia article on “potluck” even reports a (misguided) folk etymology that claims “potluck” is derived from “potlatch.”
I found a few examples on the web of using “potlatch” in a context that calls for “potluck.” Here are two of them:
Post in response to an article on cooking East Indian food in England: “But I was spoilt for Indian food long ago when the wives of my Bangla colleagues at Uni organised a potlatch supper. ” (http://www.manchesterconfidential.com/i … Manchester)
A travel log in a blog: “The New Year’s Festivities here in Sweden are really something to behold. My night started with a nice potlatch dinner amongst my flatmate and her friends. Food included Greek, Mexican, German, and [...]” (http://redwhiteblueyellow.com/journal/? … ny-of-fire)
There is an interesting complication here: since both potluck (dinner) and potlatch can be used to refer to a large community event at which food is served, it is difficult to say with certainty which specific meaning an author may have had in mind. The second quote in Kem’s post, “Food included Greek, Mexican, German, and [...]” clearly implies the ‘luck of the pot’ sense that is specific to potluck. The first, with its mention of plural wives, may imply something similar, but the quote goes on to say that the husbands now “run Bangladesh.” Thus it might hint at the ‘ceremonial display of status’ specific to Chinook potlatch. (Note that I say “might”.)
In any case, I would not be surprised to learn that some speakers have a single word in their mental lexicon whose meaning encompasses the general sense shared by both words.
ASIDE ON ORTHOGRAPHY: The square brackets and ellipses in “Greek, Mexican, German, and [...]” are in the original post, which is neither a quotation nor paraphrase of anything. That’s an odd use of square brackets, isn’t it?