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.)

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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.

14 thoughts on ““Potted”

  1. Potted is not the same as canned. In the UK say tinned or canned food for food that it in tins/cans. Potted food is in pots. It isn’t even always in a closed pot – potted shrimps are in an open-top pot which is sealed with a layer of butter, and has a very short shelf-life. Sometimes it’s in a ceramic pot with a ceramic lid, and sometimes in a glass jar with a lid that closes down with a seal (like a Kilner jar).

    I looked online and I realise that the predominant definition of ‘potted’ is ‘canned’ because of the dominance of US usage, but I can assure you that potted means something else over here.

    1. Fascinating. Thanks. It always struck me as odd here that it’s called “canning” when one puts, say, jam in an air-tight jar. What’s the verb for that over there. “Potting”? And by the way, we generally don’t use the noun “pot.” For some reason, if it’s not a glass jar, we tend to like “container,” as in “a container of yogurt.”

      1. In the domestic context when making jam, we’d use filling, putting, pouring into the jars. More generally one would talk about bottling, preserving and pickling food, not excluding jam, or qualify it as home preserving, bottling and pickling. Canning to me would imply some sort of processing beyond just the domestic jam-making filling of jars and putting a lid on them. We’d usually say a pot of yoghurt rather than a container or carton of yoghurt.

      2. Reminds me that back in the sixties, my mother would make her own pickled onions. She’d buy a quantity of pickling onions from the green-grocer’s and pickling vinegar. I think spices were involved too. Not sure if this was cheaper than buying pickled onions, but peeling the onions irritated everyone’s eyes and the place smelled of vinegar for weeks. And probably the act of putting them into storage jars was called bottling, but it was so long ago I cant remember.

      3. I will use the phrase ‘pot up’ or ‘pot’ when making home made jam or marmalade (and probably chutney, but I haven’t made any for decades). We certainly don’t say ‘canning’ for jam.

        Incidentally, I have often heard the informal verb ‘to jam’ as in ‘to make jam – “I’m going to be jamming those raspberries this afternoon”. I also say ‘I’m marmalading this weekend’, but I don’t think that’s widely used.

  2. “Canned laughter” is the usual term here. I’ve never heard of potted laughter.

    Jam goes into “jam jars”. It’s bottled rather than potted.

  3. In British English you also have “jugged” – which I don’t think is used in North America. Jugged, however, is pretty much used only literally, I don’t know of a widespread figurative usage like those of potted.

    So yeah, things can be tinned, potted, or jugged. One usually speaks of jugged kippers or jugged hare. It’s usually game meats or fish that gets jugged.

    1. I agree it is a specific term for cooking in a jug. It is similar to steaming puddings in a covered bowl placed in a pan of hot or boiling water. I’m thinking it could be called a form of steaming or the water bath, bain marie or sous vide methods so popular with fancy chefs.

    2. Jugging a kipper literally involves filling a jug with boiling water and then submerging the kipper in it. Jugged hare is a more complex process involving stewing the carcass whole in a pot on (or possibly in?) a stove.

  4. When I hear the the word ”potted” I think of Snooker, and the old TV program ”Pot Black”. The verb ”to pot” in that context refers to sinking the ball in a hole on the snooker table.

  5. When I was young and growing up in the UK, we often had family card nights. We always had to put money in “the pot”. Never heard of “ante” until I came to the US. Also when you made tea, it was always “a teaspoon per person and one for the pot!”

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