New York Times book critic Dwight Garner has the usual high number of good lines in his review today of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s new memoir. Here’s the one that especially interested me:
“Let Me Finish” is a superficial and ungainly book that tries to cover so many bases at once — it’s a series of attacks and justifications, it’s a master class in sucking up and kicking down, it’s a potted memoir, it’s a stab at political rehabilitation — that reading it is like watching an octopus try to play the bagpipes.
The reason for my interest is a NOOB–“potted.” The OED‘s definition is: “Of a piece of information, work of literature, historical or descriptive account, etc.: put into a short and easily assimilable form; condensed, summarized, abridged.” The first citation is from the magazine The Galaxy in 1873: “If I skip the lad’s measures and tidbits of potted history, yet these letters from Augustus are none the less welcome, revealing the traveller in a new light.” Subsequent citations, all from British sources, refer to “potted” abridgments, prose, abstracts, and, again history. That seems to be the word that most commonly follows this adjective, so I used the whole phrase for a Google Ngrams Viewer search to compare frequency of use in Britain and the United States through 2000, the last date for which the application supplies reliable data. (I couldn’t very well search “potted” alone, because that would give me American references to drunkenness, British references to what we would call canned laughter and to food preserved by the process we call “canning,” and reference in both countries to plants in their planters.)
I’m pretty sure American use jumped not long after that, because of the Harry Potter theatrical satirical abridgment Potted Potter, which has been playing in the U.S. for more than a decade. In any case, I found a number of American uses, including one from Times drama critic Jesse Green in November 2018. Some skits within The Thanksgiving Play, he wrote, “are selections from actual lesson plans and Pinterest boards posted by teachers to share ideas for classroom Thanksgiving activities. They include potted history and offensive ditties and, in one case, a suggestion to split the pupils into Pilgrims and Indians ‘so the Indians can practice sharing.”’
And the previous year, book critic Laura Miller wrote in The New Yorker that “newsreel-like interludes of potted history … are constantly interjected” into Paul Auster’s novel 4 3 2 1.