Saturday, March 12, 2005

Etymology Rules!

Here's something I found illuminating from my Word of The Day e-mail.

potboiler \POT-boi-lur\, noun: A usually inferior literary or artistic work, produced quickly for the purpose of making money.

The play was a mixed blessing. Through it O'Neill latched on to a perennial source of income, but the promise of his youth was essentially squandered on a potboiler. --Jane Scovell, [1]Oona. Living in the Shadows

If reading and travel are two of life's most rewarding experiences, to combine them is heavenly. I don't mean sitting on a beach reading the latest potboiler, a fine form of relaxation but not exactly mind-expanding. --Stephen Kinzer, "Traveling Companions," [2]New York Times, April 19, 1998

Potboiler comes from the phrase "boil the pot," meaning "to provide one's livelihood."

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From context, I'd always thought a potboiler was the kind of work that ratcheted up suspense, at the expense of plausibility, for maximum page-turning, popcorn-crunching excitement. Histrionics, a pot threatening to boil over. Now I see that although I labeled works as potboilers mostly correctly, it was for the wrong reasons. Now I can't consider even my own pulp fiction as a potboiler, even though it's of dubious quality and intended to broadly entertain, I haven't recognized even the rumor of income from it.

With this corrected definition, columns for hiking magazines, resumes, credit card marketing letters, and dishwasher instruction manuals might all be potboilers, reflecting the current range of inferior arenas and results to which writers devolve for sustenance. I think I prefer my old definition.

As to Stephen Kinzer's excerpt above, I find even substandard reading combined with so-so travel helps me achieve a zen-like detachment which is the essence of mind expansion. I'd advise that chewing on meaty intellectualism or art can be too engaging and envy-producing to lift one to the elusive and blissful Go-Lightly state of observation and serenity.

Ah, travel. Where is my verandah?

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