Word History

A Brief History of 'Potshot'

Duck, or you might be dinner


The potshot: it's not exactly polite.

Plenty of popcorn-grabbing moments over the past few days as our tech overlords took potshots at each other.
— Lara O’Reilly, The Wall Street Journal, 3 Apr. 2018

And on the whole, the show itself rarely veered from that course, with presenters lining up to deliver canned speeches and the occasional glancing potshot.
— Scott Meslow, GQ, 18 Sep. 2017

You probably wouldn’t like it if someone took this kind of potshot at you—being criticized is rarely fun, and a potshot is the type that seems to come out of nowhere or at an unpredictable time—but there's no question that the more objectionable potshot is the literal one.

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We're not talking about this photographer's perfectly fine pot shot.

In its original use the word refers to a shot taken from ambush or at a random or easy target. That use dates back to the mid-19th century, and it's still around:

[A man] is facing firearms charges after he took a potshot at a neighbor's chicken that had made a habit of digging under his fence and entering his yard.
— Dan Glaun, The Springfield Republican, 1 Jan. 2016

The original use makes the shot in potshot obvious, but what about the pot part?

The term has its origins in the idea that casual shooting is unbefitting a true sportsman, and is in fact characteristic of a hunter whose effort is wholly pragmatic—to get something for the cooking pot. That's right: a potshot is (historically, anyway) a shot for the sake of the (cooking) pot.

It's something to be grateful for when the only thing being lobbed at you is criticism.



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