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Putter or potter

QFrom Leslie Stephens in France: Watching the movie of Carousel recently, we heard (during the song about the clam-bake) that “We weren’t in a mood to putter”. Was this word merely concocted to rhyme with butter or is it a recognised US expression?

A It is a well-known North American expression. It’s also common in other parts of the English-speaking world, though people outside North America prefer to spell it potter. It has no connection with butter, unless you choose to interpret that word to mean “one who butts”, as with the head.

The earliest meaning of potter (I’ll stick to that spelling) was the action of poking or prodding something repeatedly.

I have been pottering about with my stick, and my family have all been on their knees grubbing i’ the ashes.

Family Secrets by S J Pratt, 1797.

It appears in the seventeenth century but derives from the Old English pote, to push, thrust or butt. Potter evolved from it by a shift in the vowel and adding the -er ending that meant doing something again and again. It’s connected to poke and in some senses with put.

Today, potter means to occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant manner or to do something idly to pass the time. How we got to that from poking or prodding is unclear. A century ago it had several other senses in Scottish and English dialects, such as walk slowly or feebly or do something awkwardly or ineffectually. Confusion with another old verb, pother, led to potter at times meaning to trouble, perplex, worry or bother.

Many examples attached it to a person’s advancing years and loss of capabilities (“He potters about in his old age”; “Mart does potter now; he can’t stand work much longer”). The image may have been of an old man with a stick idly poking at things on the ground. The word is recorded in books and newspapers from the early nineteenth century in a number of senses, including ineffectual actions.

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Page created 18 Feb. 2012

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Last modified: 18 February 2012.