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See also: pot-luck and pot luck




Spelled pot-luck before the 20th century, from pot +‎ luck. The sense “meal offered by a host to an unexpected guest” dates to 1592;[1] into the early 20th century, the word was used only to mean “meal provided by the host”.[2][3][4]

The sense “communal meal” may derive from confusion of potluck and potlatch, though this is uncertain: it may be a simple extension of the traditional meaning of “meal with guests”.[5] Some works, e.g. the one cited below from 1879 New York, use the word for an impromptu meal cooked by guests at a party (rather than made by guests bringing food to a party), emphasizing the random nature of the potluck and connecting the modern “communal meal” sense and the older sense.



potluck (countable and uncountable, plural potlucks)

  1. (dated) A meal, especially one offered to a guest, consisting of whatever is available.
    Here’s a good potluck of beans and stew.
    • George Eliot
      a woman whose potluck was always to be relied on
  2. Whatever is available in a particular situation.
  3. A meal consisting of whatever guests have brought, particularly from different parts of the world; a potlatch.

Usage notesEdit

  • The term is commonly used attributively, as in the noun phrase "potluck dinner".
  • The term is widespread in American English, though the Dictionary of American Regional English finds that it is less common in the South, the Mid-Atlantic states, and New York than elsewhere.
  • The “communal meal” sense is only recently attested; even in 2010, some dictionaries did not include it[4] while others included it[6] but sometimes proscribed it, opining that potlatch should be used instead for that sense.


1592 1600 1879
ME « 15th c. 16th c. 17th c. 18th c. 19th c. 20th c. 21st c.
  • 1592, Thomas Nashe, Strange News:
    Ile bee your daily Orator to pray that that pure sanguine complexion of yours may neuer be famisht with potte-lucke, that you may tast till yur last gaspe,
    I’ll be your daily Orator to pray that that pure sanguine complexion of yours may never be famished with pot-luck, that you may taste till your last gasp,
  • 1592 (performed; not published until 1600), Thomas Nashe, Summer’s Last Will and Testament:
    We had but even pot-luck, a little to moisten our lips and no more.
  • 1879 March 26, The Pot-Luck Picnic...An Impromptu and Enjoyable Dinner–A Display of Culinary Skill, in the New York Times, page 5:
    Last evening, at the Free Trade Club, a dinner was given by Hon. Robert R. Roosevelt to a large number of his friends. Though invitations had been issued for a week previous, the feast was decidedly of an impromptu character as far the viands went. The origin of the dinner was something of this kind: The host having met several ladies and gentlemen who declared that they were learned in the art of de la gueule, Mr. Roosevelt challenged them to make a display of their culinary ability. The wager was taken up at once, and hence the dinner. Cards of invitation of an amusing character were issued, on which the menu was indicated, with the names of the improvised cooks who were to concoct gumbo, lobster cutlets, plumb pudding, various salads, and coffee. About 50 guests were present...Course followed course in a tumultuous way. Culinary inspirations and cookery nocturnes of all flavors and tastes crowded one another. Anything like system was discarded, and this was thought likely to destroy the artistic effects of this pot-luck picnic. Hungry guests were perfectly satisfied with whatever particular dish they happened to find before them.


  • (communal meal to which guests bring dishes to share): fuddle, potlatch


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ potluck” in Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001–2019.
  2. ^ John Stephen Farmer (American), William Ernest Henley (British), Slang and its analogues past and present, volume 5 (1902), pages 273–274
  3. ^ potluck in Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, G. & C. Merriam, 1913.
  4. 4.0 4.1 potluck” in Merriam–Webster Online Dictionary.
  5. ^ The Word Detective: Potluck, 2009
  6. ^ “potluck” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 2000, →ISBN.