In a Word: When Potpourri Was Rotten

The pleasant-smelling medley has an etymological history that’s not so sweet.

Flowers in a potpourri
Mac Nishimura / Shutterstock

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Long ago, Spanish cooks developed a slow-cooked stew made of mixed meat and vegetables which they called olla podrida — that’s “rotten pot” in English. No one is entirely sure why that name was chosen; the leading theory is that the slow-cooking process mimicked decomposition.

At any rate, the stew must have been pretty scrumptious, because when the French got a taste of it, they started making it too, but they didn’t call it olla podrida. They translated the name of it literally, calling it pot pourri, French for “rotten pot.”

Both pourri and podrida trace back to the Latin putrescere “to grow rotten,” which is also the root of the English adjectives putrid and putrescent, which refer to decomposition.

The mixed-meat stew pot pourri — along with its name (later pot-pourri and potpourri) — found its way to England in the early 17th century. For English diners, the salient feature of the stew (which one assumes smelled pretty good) was that it was a medley of meats — its putrid past falling by the wayside. By 1750, people were creating new medleys of good-smelling items — primarily dried flowers and spices — and calling it potpourri as well.

The word continued its trek into the metaphorical, and in 1855 we find the first use of potpourri to mean “a miscellaneous collection,” in that case a collection of music. Today, it’s a regular category on Jeopardy! that almost never leads to a clue about decomposing meats, much less rotten pots.

Featured image: Mac Nishimura / Shutterstock

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