Wednesday, 24 August 2011
I was watching the telly yesterday and there was a man in a blue flak jacket talking about snipers taking pot shots. He was concerned about this because he might be killed; I was concerned because I didn't know why pot shots were called that. I suspected that it had something to do with snooker. How wrong I was.
The term goes back to hunting. There are two kinds of hunter: the sportsman who kills merely for the pleasure of ending another animal's life, and the hungry hunter who kills things for the thoroughly base reason that he wants to put them in his cooking pot and eat them. In the eighteenth century this latter was called a pot hunter.
As somebody anonymous put it in an 1825 tract on bull baiting:
There's nothing a regular Shot would be sooner chafed at than being called a Pot-hunter.
What makes pot hunters so despicable is that they kill things at the wrong time of year. They are so hungry that they can't even wait for the glorious twelfth until they start shooting. Instead, they potter around firing pot shots at animals that they intend to eat, this new term popped up in 1839.
From there it was a trifling step to start using the term for any opportunistic bit of gunfire, and then to capricious insult or heckle. And that's how you get to the snipers of Tripoli taking pot shots, presumably with the intention of cannibalism.