Word of the Weekend: Potlatch

Edward Curtis photo of a Kwakwaka'wakw potlatc...

A Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Well, one day I decided to make my own crawdad. And I threw it in a pot, without the water, you see? And it was just like makin’ popcorn, you see?” via  “Raising Arizona,” (1987)

It has been said in this space that, blah, blah, blah, I am often confronted with circumstances and points of views that are utterly, palm-across-the-forehead new to me. But allow me to relate a moment when I happened across something and said to myself, Hey, that’s what I was going to say.

The other day, I was reading Daniel Walker Howe’s delightful and much-recommended “What Hath God Wrought,” (Oxford University Press, 2007), and in the discussion of the fur trade there was this reference to potlatches.

“…Native peoples drove shrewd bargains and received items of use and value to them — even though, in the Pacific Northwest, they sometimes destroyed their profits in spectacular potlatches to win prestige.”

The thing I wondered was, and without casting aspersions on my casserole-dish background, Is that where the word potluck comes from?

The answer is not as much fun as I hoped it would be, and it isn’t as straightforward as I like.

And it turns out that I am nothing like the first person to ask. A writer posed the question “What’s the origin of potluck?” a few years ago to the still-plugging-away-now Straight Dope:

Every so often somebody invites me to a potluck, especially during the holiday season. Thinking on it I decided that no one would call themselves lucky after tasting what I brought in my pot. Where does this term come from? After talking to some friends we concluded, without any true research, that it is derived from the potlatch ceremonies of the Northwest Indians. I’m not quite satisfied with this. Can you help me?

via The Straight Dope: Whats the origin of “potluck”?.

It is not a stretch to imagine the words are related: Potlatch, a traditional American Indian party, and potluck, a traditional Midwestern American party. And in both cases, the word can be the larger event or one of the smaller constituents.

An assortment of food dishes at a church potluck.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Potlatch, as Straight Dope and the O.E.D. tells us, is derived from various like-sounding Indian colloquialisms, e.g. the Chinook word potlac, which means to “give away.” With potluck it is exactly that, the luck or chance of what a diner will find coming out of the pot, that gave rise to the word.

Potluck is the older word, being traced to the 1500s in fine phrases like, “That, that pure sanguine complexion of yours may neuer be famisht with potte-lucke.”


In something of an art-imitates-life twist, the word potlatch has come to mean a potluck supper among white people in parts of Alaska. That is no joke.


For the record, Webster’s Fourth defines potlatch as a “a winter festival; a distribution or exchange of gifts during such a festival, often involving the squandering of the host’s belongings.”

Potluck, Webster’s says, is “whatever the family meal happens to be; whatever is available, with little or no choice.”

Incidentally, the word potboiler, defined as a “piece of writing, a painting, etc., usually inferior, done quickly and for money only,” apparently comes from the phrase “boil the pot,” as in you better start writing if you want to have anything to put in your pot.