Words easily misused #11

I've seen two different journalers use the term potboiler correctly this morning, but I've also talked with a lot of people in the past who were confused as to what it meant. So, as a public service, I'll note that (as I understand it) the term derives from the notion of a book that an author writes solely to keep the pot boiling—that is, a book written for money (presumably as opposed to one written for artistic reasons). It is, as Nick M. notes, a somewhat derogatory term. The people I've talked with who've been confused about the meaning thought that it referred to a book that's so gripping that the reader doesn't notice the pot is boiling over on the stove; while it's certainly possible for a potboiler to have that effect, that's not really what the term is meant to imply.

While I'm here, I'll mention another term that I don't think the speaker was using in its usual sense: the CEO of a certain software company, in a conference call describing quarterly financial results, recently referred to a newly hired executive as "well-heeled." From context, I'm pretty sure that the CEO meant the exec was very experienced; I'm not sure whether it was just a speech mistake, or whether the CEO didn't realize that well-heeled means "rich."

In other news, MW10 seems to have had a bit of a site redesign recently. Not sure yet whether I like it. Hey, what do y'all think of the sidebar on those definition pages? In particular, what do you think of the fact that the sub-pages under each sidebar heading are collapsed/invisible until you click the heading? Would it be better to show a fully expanded sidebar showing all 24 (or so) sub-pages, so you could get anywhere on the site in one click? There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches; I can't decide which I like better.

5 Responses to “Words easily misused #11”

  1. Susan

    Oh weird. I’d always just assumed that “potboiler” referred to a steamy romance novel, y’know, something about it being hot. I think I picked up that association when I was a kid, and it’s never occurred to me to question it.

  2. Jed

    …I had a moment of doubt just now: what if the person who told me that derivation of the word had it wrong? But Michael Quinion supports the derivation I mentioned, and backs it up with actual research. Someday I gotta get around to joining QPB to get the OED subscription.

  3. Will

    What’s QPB?

  4. SarahP

    Hey, Jed. Here’s the OED def, with examples. What I found interesting was that it’s applied, in the examples, to other works of art (Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”!) including painting and music. I always thought, kind-of like Susan, that the term applied specifically to books that keep the lid on the narrative tension, thereby causing boiling (?).


    2. colloq. a. Applied depreciatively to a work of literature or art executed for the purpose of ‘boiling the pot’, i.e. of gaining a livelihood: see POT n.1 13e; a writing, picture, or other work, made to sell. Also applied to musical compositions, plays, and films.

    1864 Sat. Rev. 27 Aug. 275/2 Artists and novelists of a certain stamp joke about ‘pot-boilers’the name facetiously given to hasty, worthless pictures and books,..composed for the simple and sole purpose of being sold under cover of a reputation. 1864 D. G. ROSSETTI Let. 25 June (1965) II. 509 Small things and water-colours I never should have done at all, except for the long continuance of a necessity for ‘pot~boilers’. 1882 J. C. MORISON Macaulay iv. 129 Macaulay’s contributions to the Edinburgh at this period have largely the characteristics of what are vulgarly called ‘pot-boilers’, though..they were written to keep, not his own but another man’s pot boiling. 1884 H. D. TRAILL Coleridge iii. 53 Such..was the singular and even prosaic origin of the ‘Ancient Mariner’..surely the most sublime of ‘pot-boilers’ to be found in all literature. 1897 W. C. HAZLITT Four Gen. Lit. Fam. I. III. ii. 242 All men who have to live by their labour have their pot-boilers. 1915 W. S. MAUGHAM Of Human Bondage. 256 You hear of men painting pot-boilers to keep an aged mother. 1934 C. LAMBERT Music Ho! v. 306 A certain number of works that were neither potboilers nor works of individual genius. 1973 Times 14 Mar. 18/7 In the next three years he directed five pot-boilers and did some screen writing. 1975 Listener 31 July 152/3 Ayckbourn’s name could become associated with middle~brow, comedy potboilers. 1977 Time 10 Oct. 61/1 Condon works on his potboilers seven hours a day, seven days a week for ten weeks at a stretch.

  5. Joe

    In the last few years, working on a lot of web sites, I’ve gained an appreciation for the fine art of navigation bars. I tend to prefer left nav to top nav, and think that the nav should be on every page.

    Whether or not to show the expanded nav on every page depends on how big it is. In this case, the expanded nav doesn’t fit on one page without scrolling, so starting with the collapsed version is good.

    There’s also the question of click-to-expand versus pop-up-on-mouseover. I prefer click-to-expand, even though it requires more activity on the part of the user, because pop-up menus are often difficult to work with, losing focus and disappearing when you move a tiny bit too far or other such problems.

    My biggest qualm with their new design is the centering of the content on the page, leaving a giant blank space on the left. Users’ attention generally starts at the top left of a page, and having that space be completely empty is a bad design decision.


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