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How did this word come to mean “a usually inferior work of art or literature produced chiefly for monetary return”?
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Michael Quinion's site is a good one for finding origins of words and phrases. Another good one is Evan Morris's www.word-detective.com.
Purple Dragon's right again. A potboiler is a commercial project of no great moral or aesthetic significance that smooths out the jagged valleys of a freelancer's income.
I didn't know until this moment that painters use the term too. I know it from freelance writers.
This is one explanation I found online:
POTBOILER: Formulaic works of art produced cheaply and quickly produced to satisfy a market demand -- usually for genre paintings -- and to make a modest income (i.e., to keep soup boiling in the pot). By extension, the term has come to mean any work considered to lack distinctive quality or originality.
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