Q From Tom Hart, Boston, Mass.: I’ve been trying to find the etymology of potboiler (‘a usually inferior work, as of art or literature, produced chiefly for profit’, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary) for so long that I’ve forgotten what brought it to mind in the first place. I suspect it’s strictly an Americanism, but can’t find the answer to that, either. Can you help?
A Those among us with an interest in archaeology will know of potboiler in a more literal sense. It was a stone heated in a fire and dropped into a pot of liquid in order to warm it. This was a useful technique in the days when primitive pottery was too fragile to be exposed directly to a fire. However, the figurative sense you mention was recorded about the middle of the nineteenth century, so it’s rather older than the archaeological one.
An artistic potboiler served the not wholly unrelated function of bringing in some quick money to keep the home fires burning and the cooking pots boiling. So it was a work produced for strictly commercial reasons rather than from any artistic impulse. In the more elevated arenas of artistry such a motive — then, as now — was considered deeply demeaning (though a century earlier Dr Johnson rebuked such ivory-tower attitudes with his magisterial comment that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”). It often referred specifically to a work that had been rapidly executed to make a quick buck, therefore one likely to be poorly done.
There seems also to have been a strong feeling that to keep one’s reputation alive before the public one had to originate new works regularly (the modern academic’s mantra of “publish or perish” contains much the same idea). In other words, one had to keep the pot boiling in order to stay in the game.
The first examples in the Oxford English Dictionary are all British, so it’s tempting to say it’s not an American term. However, I’ve since found an earlier example than the OED knows about, from Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of New York, dated 1854: “He has not carelessly dashed off his picture, with the remark that ‘it will do for a pot-boiler’ ”.
As Douglas G Wilson has pointed out, there was another expression of the period, to boil the pot, to supply one’s livelihood. This was recorded in print from the early nineteenth century on, but was probably older in the spoken language. Something that boiled the pot was obviously enough a pot-boiler, so the term is probably much the same age as boil the pot.