Why On Earth Do They Call It Throwing?
by Dennis Krueger
This article first appeared in
Studio Potter, Volume 11, Number 1 (December 1982).
Copyright © 1982 by Studio Potter. All rights reserved.
May be reproduced with permission of Studio Potter.
When a person changes professions (as most Americans do
several times in their lives) one carries the knowledge and
experience of the profession left behind into the new profession.
In my case the old profession was German language and
literature; the new one, pottery. I knew that language, like
any other attribute of man, is in a constant state of flux.
Anyone who tries to read Chaucer, or even Shakespeare, in
its original form can see the enormous changes that have
occurred in English just since the Middle Ages. I knew that
language has a history just as political events or personalities
do, and I knew that most European languages can be traced
back to Indo-European roots that actually predate writing.
When I first began making pots, I was naturally curious
about the new words I was learning - words which didn't
seem to make much sense. Until then, I had thought grog
was a rum drink, slip was something 'twixt the cup and the
lip, and I wondered why on earth wheel work was called
throwing. Since I had the skills in etymology to answer these
questions myself, I eventually got around to doing just that.
One of my initial discoveries was of great personal interest.
In graduate school, I had been told by one of my professors
that Krueger means country innkeeper. Krug (not Stein) is the
German word for beer mug and a Krueger is the man who
serves beer mugs. This is indeed one definition. The other is
that a Krueger is the man who makes beer mugs: Krueger
means potter. No wonder I had such an affinity for clay!
When I finally explored a larger number of potter's words,
some patterns began to emerge. Within the flux of language
some areas change rapidly and some resist change. Much of
the specialized vocabulary of pottery has resisted change for
the simple reason that the activities and objects described
have changed so little over the centuries.
I shall begin with the words that appear in Old English
(500-1050 A.D.), although many have even older roots.
Clay appears in Old English as claeg and means exactly the
same thing it does today. To find the root for clay, we have
to go back to the Indo-European root *glei- meaning to glue,
paste, stick together.
To throw. Potters at Marshall Pottery in Texas describe
their work at the potters wheel as turning. They understand
only the modern meaning of to throw and do not use it to
describe their work. However, the Old English word thrawan
from which to throw comes, means to twist or turn. Going
back even farther, the Indo-European root *ter- means to rub,
rub by twisting, twist, turn. The German word drehen, a
direct relative of to throw, means turn and is used in German
for throwing. Because the activity of forming pots on the
wheel has not changed since Old English times, the word
throw has retained its original meaning in the language of
pottery but has developed a completely different meaning in
everyday usage. Those who say they throw pots are using the
historically correct term. Those who say they turn pots are
using more current language. Both are saying the same thing.
Glaze and glass come from the same root - the Old English
root glaer, meaning amber. Amber, as everyone knows, is a
"pale yellow, sometimes reddish or brownish, fossil resin of
vegetable origin, translucent, brittle." (The Random House
Dictionary of the English Language, 1967). For the
English-speaking world, glass - and with it glaze - must have
come into use at a time when amber was a commonly recognized
substance. Since amber was a substance much like glass in
appearance, the word for amber - glaer - was transferred to
the new substance.
Kiln derives from the Latin word culina, meaning kitchen
or cookstove. Culina was introduced to England by the
Romans in the first and second centuries A.D., managed to
survive the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the fifth and sixth
centuries, and showed up in the Old English forms cylene or
cyline, meaning large oven. Culina has retained this specialized
meaning ever since, and nowhere is it used to denote kitchen.
Its cousin, culinary, is of much more recent origin. Its first
written appearance was in 1638, and its closeness to the
classical Latin form indicates that it was reintroduced to
English by sixteenth century humanists.
Slip has a history like that of to throw. It derives from the
Old English word slype, a relative of slop, and its original
meaning is liquid mud. Common usage retains a hint of this
meaning in the verb to slip, and in the common adjective
slippery. As a noun, however, slip means liquid mud only to
potters and ceramists. Everyday language has completely lost the
meaning of slip as it is used in pottery.
Pot, potter, pottery. These words do not show up in England
until late Old English or early Middle English (1050-1450).
There are forms of the word pot in Old Frisian, Middle
Dutch, Middle Low German, Old Norse, Swedish, French,
Spanish, and Portugese. However, no forms exist in Old High
German or Middle High German. This suggests that the
word pot comes from some vulgar Latin derivative of the
classical Latin verb potare, to drink. Medieval Latin uses
pottus for drinking cup; classical Latin uses potorium for
drinking cup; and classical Greek uses poterion for drinking
cup. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, disputes this
etymology and claims that the origin of pot is unknown. Since
the former explanation is better than no explanation, I shall
opt for it. Pot comes eventually from the Latin word for drinking
cup. It seems likely that the words pot and potter were
introduced to England at the time of the Norman conquest
(1066). Pottery seems to be a much later addition to English
than pot or potter. Apparently it was adopted from the French
poterie in the fifteenth century. By the way, the -er of potter
means one who makes, and the -ery means the place where.
Since pot, potter, and pottery come into English relatively
late, it is logical to assume that they displaced another set of
words prior to their arrival. After casting about for a number
of possibilities, I hit upon crock, crocker, and crockery, and
decided to see how old they are. Crock goes back to Old
English crocc - crocca meaning earthenware pot or pitcher -
and is related to Icelandic krukka, Danish krukke, Swedish
kruka, Old High German krog or kruog, Middle High German
kruoc, and German krug! The ultimate origin of crock is
unknown. There is a written record of the word crock, dating
from about 1000 A.D. Crocker is defined by the Oxford English
Dictionary as "potter." The earliest written record of crocker
occurs around 1315. The existence of Crocker today as a surname
is strong evidence that it is quite old. Crockery is defined
by the Oxford English Dictionary as "crocks, or earthenware
vessels, collectively earthenware, especially domestic utensils
of earthenware." Its earliest written appearance was in 1755.
This suggests to me that until the arrival of the Normans in
1066, crock and crocker were the common Anglo-Saxon terms
for pot and potter which were pushed aside by the new terms
imported by the French-speaking Normans in 1066, but
which lived on with a specialized meaning. Crockery,
however, seems to be a much later coinage, probably formed
by analogy to other nouns ending in -ery. Crockery did not
come into common use until the eighteenth century.
Four words whose origins are unknown, but which are probably
quite old, are to wedge, bat, grog, and saggar. Their
monosyllabic forms would seem to indicate Anglo-Saxon roots, but
no evidence exists to prove that one way or the other. Even
the Oxford English Dictionary sheds no light on their derivation.
To wedge. The Oxford English Dictionary contains the following
under to wedge:
wedge, v. in 7 wage (of obscure origin; the modern form is pro-
bably less correct than the earlier wage but cf wedge Sb 4). Trans.
to cut (wet clay) into masses and work them by kneading and
throwing down, in order to expel air bubbles. 1686 Plot. Stafford-
ish. 123 (Potter's clay) is brought to the waging board, where it is
slit into flat, thin pieces . . . This being done, they wage it, i.e.,
knead or mould it like bread.
The latter part of this entry contains the date, 1686, of the
oldest written record of the word. I suspect that the word is
much older and that if it is related to wage, it may simply
mean something like make, as in the expression "to wage
war," but that is just speculation on my part.
Bat. On bat there is even less information than on wedge.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines bat as a "lump, a piece
of certain substances" and calls its origin obscure.
Grog. As used by potters, grog must be a figment of our
imaginations because it is not listed in any of the major
dictionaries I consulted. (It is found in An Illustrated Dictionary
of Ceramics.) The Oxford English Dictionary lists only the meaning
for the rum drink. Perhaps if potters who read this
would send sharp letters of protest to the editors of Random
House, Oxford English, and other dictionaries, this deplorable
situation could be corrected.
Saggar. Saggar seems to be a corruption of safeguard.
Many words are derived from the names of the places they
are found, or from the way they are made or used. Ball clay
is a type of clay found in Dorset and Devon in England, so
named because the clay was cut into balls weighing about
thirty pounds. Bentonite is named after Fort Benton, Montana,
where it was first mined. China is named after the country of
its origin. Kaolin is of Chinese origin and derives from kao
ling, meaning high hill - the place it was first found. Faience,
the tin-glazed earthenware, was made at Faenza, Italy, in the
sixteenth century. Maiolica is named after the island of
Majorca (formerly Maiolica), which was a transfer point for
work produced in Valencia, Spain, and exported to Italy.
Mishima may derive from the radiating character of certain
almanacs made at Mishima, Japan, or it may have been
acquired by association with the island of Mishima where the
ware was transshipped from Korea. Potash - potassium
carbonate - was originally produced by burning wood in a
pot. The Dutch coined the term potasch in 1598, and it
entered English in 1648. Raku means enjoyment, and the
ware takes its name from a seal engraved with this word,
which was used to mark early pieces. It is also the name of a
series of potters - Raku I-XIV.
The derivations of some words that came into the language
in the Middle English period (1050-1450), or later, are quite
Porcelain. Chinese porcelain was reputedly first introduced
to Europe by Marco Polo via Italy. The Italians therefore had
the privilege of giving it a European name (although some
say it was the Portuguese who named it). They called it
porcellana. In French it became porcelaine. The English took it
over from the French and dropped the final -e. The Italians
probably kept the origin of the word a secret; it is unlikely
that the English would have had anything to do with it
otherwise. Italian porcellana originally denoted the sea shell
concha veneris. This Venus' conch shell is hard and white, and
perhaps the Italians named the Chinese ware porcellana
because they thought the shell was ground up and used in
the body, or because of the similarity in hardness and
whiteness. More interestingly, the word for the seashell itself
comes from the word porca, pork. The shell was so named
because of its similarity to the genitalia of the sow.
Celadon is an equally interesting word. Most of the
dictionaries say that the name comes from the character
Celadon in Honore d'Urfe's novel Astree. d'Urfe for his part is
said to have borrowed the name from the Latin poet Ovid.
The character in d'Urfe's novel always wore pale green ribbons.
The connection seems tenuous at best, and no one can
explain how the name was transferred to a pale green Chinese
glaze. An Illustrated Dictionary of Ceramics offers this much
more likely derivation: "The name is probably a corruption
of Salah-ed-din (Saladin), Sultan of Egypt, who sent forty
pieces of this ware to Nur-ed-din, Sultan of Damascus, in 1171."
Stein. When I was an undergraduate student at the University
of Freiburg in the Black Forest area of West Germany, I
remember being asked by a friend back home to send her a
beer mug. I went to a shop and in my best German (which
at the time was none too good) I asked for a Bierstein. The
saleswoman kept asking me to speak English. I kept refusing
because I was determined to speak only German. She only figured
out what I wanted when I pointed to the object. Later, I realized
that Bierkrug is the correct word, and that Stein means
stone. How the German word for stone has come to mean
mug in America is a mystery to me. I still feel embarrassment
for not having known the difference that day in Freiburg.
Direct borrowings from other languages are common in the
English language for pottery. We have already seen kaolin,
mishima, and raku. Some others are ceramics,
and temmoku. Ceramic is of recent French origin. It
was borrowed from ceramique in the nineteenth century. Its
root is the Greek word keram(os), potter's clay. Engobe
derives from the French en- plus gober which means, literally,
to gulp, take in the mouth, hence to coat something
with saliva. From this original meaning to its current sense
is not too great a leap. Its earliest appearance in written
English was in 1857 in Birch's Ancient Pottery. Sgraffito is
borrowed from Italian and derives ultimately from the
Greek graphein, to write or scratch. Temmoku is used to
describe black-glazed stoneware cups and bowls made during
the Sung dynasty (960-1280) at Chien-an (Honan province),
China, and so called by the Japanese who sought
the ware for use in the tea ceremony. I do not know its
meaning or origin.
Modern technology has introduced a number of new
words to the language of pottery. Opax, superpax, and
zircopax are all based on opacifier.
Fiberfrax is from fiber and
refractory, kaowool from kaolin and wool.
While these are
brand names, they are often also used as common names.
Finally, I decided to see where art and craft would lead
me. Art goes back to the Indo-European root *ar-, to join.
Craft derives from the Indo-European root *ger-, to twist,
turn. I was tempted to try to make something out of the
difference but gave up the idea, knowing that it would be
In summary, the potter's language has a core of words
that go back to Old English roots, and beyond, which have
changed little in form or meaning over the centuries
because the objects and activities have changed little. Many
new words have been added - largely from foreign sources -
describing new techniques, new bodies, new technology,
or new objects so that there is a continuous enlargement of
the core vocabulary: a sign of a healthy and vigorous craft.