Posted: 14 July 2007 07:33 AM   [ Ignore ]
Total Posts:  710
Joined  2007-02-07

My sister called me and asked me what I was doing. “I’m just puttering around the house.” Puttering is often how I describe my unstructured activities and I decided to check my new Concise Oxford American Dictionary (which I got at a book fair last week at a bargain price and was well chuffed indeed) and I found this:

“occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant manner, doing a number of small tasks or not concentrating on anything in particular. - move or go in casual unhurried way.”

And that describes perfectly what I was doing. Small tasks like watering the plants, cleaning the cat box, trying to find the flash drive the cat is always knocking off the desk. But when I checked the word at dictionary.com I found this:

“To occupy oneself in an aimless or ineffective manner.”


The Online Etymology Dict. (I wish they would cite resources) has this: “keep busy in a rather useless way” Again, the ineffective business.

Cambridge online has this: “to move about without hurrying and in a relaxed and pleasant way”

It just struck me as odd that American puttering is useless but British puttering is pleasant. I certainly find my puttering useful and pleasant so I guess that even though I’m in the US, I must be puttering Anglo style.

How do y’all putter? (Assuming, of course, that you putter at all)

Posted: 14 July 2007 10:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
Total Posts:  2335
Joined  2007-01-30

We Brits don’t putter, we potter.

Putter, v, 2 orig. US

=Potter, v4 and 5

1878 L. M. ALCOTT Under Lilacs xii. 130 Ben infinitely preferred to watch ants and bugs..rather than ‘putter’ over plants with long names. 1878 L. C. BELL in Wide Awake Jan. 24/1 Every morning in the midst of his chores, Max found time for a long, hovering, puttering visit. Ibid., Max likes to ‘putter’ with the housework, too. 1882 Century XXV. 202 The aged grandfather of this group was usually absent after wood, or else puttering near the fire-place.

Potter, v

4. a. intr. To occupy oneself in an ineffectual or trifling way; to work or act in a feeble or desultory manner; to dabble in or with something. Cf. sense 5b.

1824 W. CARR Horæ Momenta Cravenæ Gloss., Potter, to do things ineffectually. 1832 CARDINAL MANNING in E. S. Purcell Life Cardinal Manning I. 99, I suppose your husband is pottering on in his old way. 1861 T. HUGHES Tom Brown at Oxf. III. xiii. 242 David pottered on at his bees and his flowers till old Simon returned. 1887 Spectator 16 Apr. 535/1 Any man..who likes to ‘potter’ in zoology.

Posted: 14 July 2007 09:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
Total Posts:  115
Joined  2007-02-24

I’m with you, Happydog. I’m US’an, and I always thought of “puttering” as doing small or partial tasks at a leisurely pace. If the tasks are not useful, then that is just “messing around”.

Posted: 15 July 2007 02:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
Total Posts:  1370
Joined  2007-01-29

I’m spending the morning pottering around the garden, but I also spend hours of my life just puttering around.  (I have a talent for this type of activity).

Posted: 15 July 2007 06:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
Total Posts:  236
Joined  2007-02-23

I vaguely recall “puttering” from somewhere in my US experiences but cannot recall when or where. I read it as not negative, perhaps even positive.

Posted: 15 July 2007 01:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
Total Posts:  1277
Joined  2007-03-21

Here’s a former discussion relating puttering to putz.

Posted: 15 July 2007 02:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
Total Posts:  3507
Joined  2007-01-29

Well, comparing them, anyway.  I don’t think any relation was established (nor do I think it’s likely).

Posted: 15 July 2007 03:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
Total Posts:  156
Joined  2007-02-15

This thread has revealed to me a Dutch word I had never thought had an English equivalent… please bear with me as I clumsily reveal all!

Here’s Etymology Online’s entry for ‘potter’:

potter (v.)
1530, “to poke again and again,” frequentative of obsolete poten “to push, poke,” from O.E. potian “to push” (see put). Sense of “occupy oneself in a trifling way” is first recorded 1740.

Now here is the etymological Van Dale (Dutch dictionary) entry for the verb ‘poten’:

poten [meaning: to stick plants in the ground]
1201-1250 OE potian, E put.
Presumably from ‘poot’ (means ‘foot’ or ‘paw’ in English - BG), so ‘to make a hole with the heel or foot in which to stick the plant.

Before I looked ‘poten’ up, I had already seen the similarity between ‘potter’ or ‘putter’ and the Dutch verb ‘peuteren’, which means ‘to pick away at’ (usually used as in ‘picking your nose’).

So I found the entry for ‘peut’, the noun from which ‘peuteren’ is formed.

peut [meaning: a blow or strike] Similar to ‘peuter’ [small child, toddler] in ‘peuteren’ [to grabble, pick away at], which is an iterative of ‘poten’ [to stick in the ground], OE potian [to strike, hit]

The final entry is the one for the verb, ‘peuteren’:

peuteren [to grabble, pick away at, root about in]
Also ‘poteren’ 1469, ‘pueteren’ 1546, ‘peuteren’ 1599. Iterative of ‘poten’ (and compare ‘peut’)

I think on the basis of this, these words (Eng ‘potter’ and Dutch ‘peuteren’) still share at least one common meaning, ‘to root about’.

And isn’t it just a bit ironic that in modern Rightpondian, ‘potter’ is often used in the phrase “pottering about in the garden”.... or making holes in it to plant plants!!

Did any of this make sense? :)

Posted: 16 July 2007 12:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
Total Posts:  115
Joined  2007-02-24

Perfect sense to me, BlackGrey.

I’m also amused that these words turned into “puttering” and “putz[ing]” (Dave brought that up in the old link), and it is always seems to be, “around the house”. Today, at least in the midwest US, “puttering” and “putzing” are very popular amongst the middle to old agers. Don’t know if the youngsters use either term nowadays.

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