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use of english (was: british terms)

updated tue 28 nov 00


Janet Kaiser on sat 25 nov 00

Having been somewhat confused and/or bemused by
reference to "pottery" and "ceramics" here on
Clay Art recently, including inferences as to
their standing or classification, I personally
think your query is rather timely, Snail.

My feeling is, that along with a great many
other subjects, anything to do with clay has
also been "upwardly mobile" over recent years.
Let's face it, "ceramic" does sound a whole lot
more sexy and impressive than "pottery".

It will also depend a lot on your age... When I
went to college, we made pots and other items
made of clay in the pottery room, where we were
taught by potters and our subject was pottery.
Pots were ceramic because they were made from
clay. "Ceramic" was only ever used as an
adjective to distinguish items made of clay from
other materials.

These days, students study in the art faculty,
work in the design department, make ceramic
vessels and forms, get a BA (Honours) degree in
ceramic design... No mention is ever (or hardly
ever) made of potters, pots or pottery. They are
words to be avoided! Definitely old-fashioned
and therefore down-market! Something only for
hobby classes and kindergarten? Probably, at
least by inference.

But what is regionally or locally used to
differentiate between or classify the hobby vs.
professional maker, production thrower vs.
slip-cast producer, potter vs. ceramic artist,
etc. etc. ad nauseum, will very much depend on
the local tradition and the experience of the
speaker. I do not think (and I may stand
corrected) there is a difference between
countries on this one.

It does not matter which country you are in,
different people will use different expressions
based on their personal experience, education,
prejudice and/or traditions and current,
prevailing convention(s).

The titles of books are also an indication of
how our use of language is evolving. Just
looking up from my keyboard at the bookshelf...
Can read two without getting up to look closer:
"Pioneer Studio Pottery" and "Sculpture,
Modelling and Ceramics". Without you even
knowing which books they are, you too can
probably date them fairly accurately... Right?

Far be it from my intention to rekindle the art
vs. craft debate (please don't!) I do however,
think this linguistic delineation (however it is
quantified, qualified and applied) in recent
years, is a direct result of art speak and the
huge increase in the number of academics and
theoreticians... You know, those who have a
degree in ceramic design, but cannot throw a
pot, mix a glaze, fire a kiln, tell the
difference between slip and stoneware and have
difficulty seeing any work through all the whole
production process (successfully), without huge
input from the overworked and underpaid

Graduating from such college departments, means
the would-be and wanna-be high fliers often come
down to earth with a bang, when faced with the
reality of working on their own. Suddenly the
humble potter down the road is not someone to be
scorned, but a valuable and necessary source of
information on all the skills and technical
know-how, which somehow got overlooked or
ignored during the paper-chase.

Those of you who have known me a while, know I
can express fairly uncompromising views on many
subjects. However, even I draw a line at some of
the illogical "classifications" which have
recently been slipping into discussions. To
class "pottery" as being an inferior act, deed,
method, profession or whatever, compared to
"ceramics", is just plain soft.

Perhaps it would help if everyone learns that
the word "ceramic" is only an adjective to
describe something made from clay? I doubt that
any educated, English-speaking person would
describe something as being a "pottery
sculpture" or "pottery pot". Equally wrong,
would be a "sculpture made of ceramics". Could
it be that the English woman you met, was just
being grammatically correct, Snail? From what
you tell us, I have an idea she was not a potter
either. I don't think we should take what the
common man or woman in the street says as being
gospel, wherever we live or come from. At the
end of the day, everything to do with our given
subject is really rather specialised, including
the language. Nicht?

Janet Kaiser
The Chapel of Art . Capel Celfyddyd
Criccieth LL52 0EA, GB-Wales Tel: (01766) 523570

----- Original Message -----

> I have met people, mainly British or
Australian, who use the
> term 'ceramics' to mean slip-cast hobby stuff,
and 'pottery'
> to mean handbuilt or thrown clay. The common
usage I am
> familiar with is that 'pottery' is functional
ware or a close
> cousin (you know, 'pots'), and ceramics is any
use of fired clay -
> functional, sculptural, slip-cast, industrial,
whatever. An
> English woman I met once insisted, however,
that my large stoneware
> sculpture was 'pottery' and NOT 'ceramics',
and became quite
> worked up about the issue!
> Is this in fact a 'British-ism', is it
universally used there,
> or is it less geographically specific in its
use? (I have heard
> a few Americans use these definitions, but not
> I'm probably opening a can of linguistic worms
that I'm gonna regret!
> -Snail

Cindy Strnad on sat 25 nov 00

Whether "ceramic" or "pottery" is more prestigious must indeed be a
localized phenomenon, as Janet suggested. Because of my affiliation with
Clayart, and reading trade journals and books and so on, the words seem
synonymous to me.

I do, however, have to be careful which terms I use around which people. In
this area, "ceramic" is in general usage to refer to hobby items such as
painted bisqueware. "Pottery" is far more prestigious here, because it
refers only to the "real thing".

Cindy Strnad
Earthen Vessels Pottery
RR 1, Box 51
Custer, SD 57730

Sheron Roberts on mon 27 nov 00

Cindy wrote
"I do, however, have to be careful which terms I use around which =
people. In
this area, "ceramic" is in general usage to refer to hobby items such as
painted bisqueware. "Pottery" is far more prestigious here, because it
refers only to the "real thing".

Seems to be true here also. If I say that I work in or make ceramics =
most of the time people think I am referring to slip cast ceramics, If =
I say I am a potter, they almost always say "Oh yeah (said with =
reverence and awe )(giggle, giggle), I always wanted to do that" Or "I =
took a class once"
Just as a point of interest, my teacher, a dyed-in-the-wool functional =
potter, (as in very, very seldom does he make anything but functional =
pots) often refers to himself as a ceramist.
Sheron in NC
(infected by the bah hum "bug" and refusing to put a Christmas tree this =