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The Great Pottery Throw Down and language

The newest knockout competition on British television is The Great Pottery Throw Down (GPTD), in which an initial ten potters produce a variety of ceramic work each week, the most successful being declared Top Potter, and the least successful being ‘asked to leave’. The last four then compete in a final for the overall title. While the format is very familiar from the likes of The Great British Bake Off and Masterchef, some of the words used in it may not be.

The Great British what?

The first thing of linguistic interest that I noticed was actually the title itself. Apart from the fact that expressions like throw-down and bake-off are, conventionally, hyphenated, why ‘throw-down’ at all?

A throw-down can be a fall in wrestling, but I don’t suppose many viewers will have been distracted by that, let alone misled into thinking the programme had something to do with both pottery and wrestling. Slightly closer, a throwdown is also, in an originally American sense, ‘a performance by, or competition between, DJs, rappers, or similar artistes’. While the world of competitive pottery may have no more in common with rapping than it does with wrestling, the producers are punning on the idea of throwing pots (to which I’ll return below).

By contrast, bake-off already meant ‘a contest in which cooks prepare baked goods such as bread and cakes for judging’. It does also, though, refer (in the grocery trade) to baked goods such as bread and cakes that are supplied to shops part-baked and then ‘baked off’ in the shops’ own ovens for freshness and, no doubt, that tempting ‘just-baked’ aroma wafting around the shop.

The title of GPTD could conceivably have been The Great British Throw Off, on the pattern of Bake Off, the ‘dreaded Dance Off’ in Strictly Come Dancing, and a play-off such as that for third place in a competition like the football World Cup. A throw-off is in fact the release of hounds at the start of a hunt, so not familiar or closely related enough to have caused confusion, but to throw something off is to produce it quickly and quite probably in a slapdash or offhand manner, which would not have been a desirable connotation.

Throwing biscuits?

In any specialist field, I am interested in words that have a very different meaning from the best known one, like a sheet on a sailing boat, which sounds like a sail, but is in fact a rope attached to a sail, used for keeping it at an angle where the wind acts on it. Some of the most striking such words in pottery are throw, turn, biscuit, bisque, slip, and wedge.

One of the central terms to potting is to throw – hence its mention in the title. Throwing is shaping clay with the hands while it is stuck to a rotating horizontal wheel. The immediately resulting bowl, vase, plate, etc. is perfectly round (barring the odd imperfection), but it can then be reshaped while it is still soft, to form a spout on a jug, for instance, and it can be remodelled at various subsequent stages by cutting pieces off, adding a handle, and so on.

Early on in the first round, the origin of to throw was explained. It’s often assumed that it lies in the practice of slamming the clay down on the wheel to make it stick, and the title The Great British Throw Down tends to reinforce that assumption. However, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records, the earliest forms of the word, in Old English, meant ‘to turn’ or ‘to twist’, and the first recorded use in a pottery sense is from 1440.

Throw is related to the modern German word drehen, which means ‘to turn, revolve’, and it is interesting that it too has a pottery sense in Drehscheibe (literally a ‘turning disc’), which is one word for a potter’s wheel.

The OED records that throw can also mean to shape wood with cutting tools while it is rotating in a lathe, for which the more common word is turn, as in woodturning. To complicate things even more, to turn is also used in pottery, meaning to shape a pot with metal tools while it revolves on a wheel, in a process similar to woodturning. That is done when the pot has partly dried out and will hold its shape when being cut into, and this condition is known as leather-hard, another term used on the programme.

The word biscuit is doubly confusing, because not only does it here refer to pottery at a particular stage in its making, rather than a food item, but it also belies its own etymology. To start at the beginning, the Throw Down defined the term in Episode 1: ‘A pot’s first trip to the kiln is known as the biscuit firing, and it permanently transforms the clay.’ In other words, the pot is heated to around 1000º Celsius, causing chemical changes that harden it. The word biscuit is from Old French, and literally means ‘cooked twice’ because biscuits were originally baked normally and then dried out to make them keep, like present-day rusks or biscotti (the equivalent word in Italian). Biscuit also means pottery itself that has been fired in this way but not glazed. Most pottery is then glaze-fired, at an even higher temperature, to produce a waterproof glass-like coating, so, while some edible biscuits have been baked twice, as their name suggests, biscuit-fired pots, paradoxically, have only had one of the two firings that most pottery undergoes.

Bisque is an alternative word for biscuit and likewise more commonly means a food, in this case shellfish soup.

Slip has featured a lot in the rounds of the competition. It is thin, watered-down clay with two main purposes: usually with a pigment added, it is spread over unfired pieces by brushing, dipping, or pouring, in order to colour them. It is also used in slip casting, where it is poured into a mould and allowed to dry to create either solid or thin-walled shapes. How slip has come to mean this is obscure, but there may be a connection with the Norwegian word slip(a), which means ‘slime’.

Wedging is kneading clay before it is used, in order to homogenize it and get rid of air bubbles – boring but necessary, although some people make an art of it. If you don’t wedge clay enough, uneven consistency can make a pot crack in the firing, and an air bubble can make it explode – not popular with other potters who have pieces in the kiln at the same time.

What’s the difference between pottery and ceramics?

The contestants and judges in GPTD talk about pottery, potting, and pots, as well as ceramic and ceramics, but there is essentially no difference between pottery and ceramics – Oxford Dictionaries define a potter as ‘a person who makes ceramic ware’, and, of the two judges, Kate Malone is described as a ‘ceramic artist’ in GPTD but a ‘studio potter’ in an Observer Magazine article (6 December 2015), while Keith Brymer Jones is called a ‘potter’ in GPTD but a ‘ceramicist’ in the Observer.

However, as the Oxford English Corpus reveals, just a few things are predominantly described using a word from one family or the other: for instance, tiles are almost always ceramic tiles, and you will hear of only a ceramic artist; on the other hand, fragments found at archaeological sites are normally pottery shards, and the throwing wheel is only a potter’s wheel. If you want to describe all kinds of ceramic items, you would probably say ceramics rather than pots because many of the pieces will probably be figurative or decorative sculptures that are not even remotely like a pot.

This article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Featured Image: “hands spinning” by Regiane Tosatti. Public Domain via Pexels

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