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shameless pleading





Potter’s field

Return to sender.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the name “potter’s field” come from? — Denise Caldara.

Gee, I’m glad you asked that question.  I’ve been watching the financial news a lot lately, and I’ve noticed that I’ve been waking up every day in the kind of wide-eyed euphoria I remember from my childhood Christmas mornings.  I can hardly wait to go online and see what hijinks those little scamps on Wall Street have been up to while I slept, which hitherto ho-hum sector of our so-called economy is suddenly circling the drain and only salvageable with the last of the change hiding under my couch cushions.  My neighbors, in fact, have begun to complain about my constant giggling.

So it’s a good thing that you picked this moment to raise the specter of burial in an unmarked pauper’s grave.  I feel better already.

A “potter’s field” is a piece of land used as a burial place for the poor or, in some places, strangers to the community.  Most large cities in the world today have a “potter’s field.”  New York City, for instance, has used Hart Island, in Long Island Sound off the eastern edge of the Bronx, for burial of the indigent since the Civil War.  Several New York City parks, including Washington Square Park, had previously been used by the city as “potter’s fields.”

I suspect that many people assume that the “potter’s field” takes its name from someone named Potter, and occasionally you’ll see the term incorrectly capitalized.  Personally, I can’t help associating “potter’s field” with the character of mean old Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the cruel tycoon who, in the film’s “what if” segment, transformed cozy Bedford Falls into the dismal “Pottersville.”

But the term “potter’s field” comes from the Bible, specifically the Gospel of Matthew.  When Judas Iscariot was overcome with remorse for accepting thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus, he returned the coins to the temple.  The priests, however, could not accept “blood money” (money used to purchase the death of a person), so they used it to buy land on which to bury the poor and foreigners.  The land they bought was rich in clay and had been owned by a pot-maker, so it was known henceforth as “potter’s field.”  The actual site of the original “potter’s field,” although its location is in dispute today, was also known as “Aceldama,” which is an Aramaic word meaning “field of blood.”

Apart from its use in translations of the Bible, the first appearance of “potter’s field” in English dates to 1777 (“I took a walk into the Potter’s Field, a burying ground between the new stone prison and the hospital,” John Adams).  By 1906 the phrase was being used figuratively, as it still is, to mean a place of dishonor and abandonment (“When I wrote a letter … you did not put it in the respectable part of the magazine, but interred it in that ‘potter’s field,’ the Editor’s Drawer,” Mark Twain).

12 comments to Potter’s field

  • Alfred

    Haha. I actually thought it had something to do with pot makers. It’s nice to be right (or almost right) for once.

  • sue

    thank you for this information I have just watched a film called DONT SAY A WORD and it has scenes that are filmed on HART ISLAND and I wanted to know more about it THANKS

  • Ray Lamontagne

    Great info thank you

  • I live in the Town of Ordway, Colorado and there is a section by the name of Potters Field. It has never had a sign until about three or four months ago. Then the Town Crew had put a sign there that I had requested, because it was on the original map of the Ordway Cemetery. The Ordway Town Council had voted to have the town crew remove it from the cemetery, because some old ladies in the Town of Ordway had been offended by it. The Town Council voted on this on Monday, March 17, 2011 and the town crew removed it on Thursday, March 17, 2011. There has never been any kind of signs in the Ordway Cemetery until the Cemetery Board had asked the town crew to put them in the cemetery. I think that it is unfair to have the Potters Field sign removed. The town Council said that there is not any other Cemeteries that have the signsin them. I sure would appreciate it if anybody could let me know what could be done.

  • Carole Faulkner

    I live in Kingsburg, ca and not go far from me is a little town called Traver and the day my son and I decided to take a different way home and came across a place called “Potters Field… It looked abandon had the fence was high and locked but in front of it there is a stone plack the says here lies out sons and daughters from tulare county may they rest in piece and sure enough if u looked real hard I. The farthest corner of the lot there were little crosses in the ground where a child had been buried or adult not sure… But there is a big new sign that says”potters field “

  • Jennifer

    Potters dig deep pits–usually near riverbanks– to get to the clay where the finest particles are deepest in the holes. As potters abandon the pits and start new ones, the holes became dumps for garbage, waste and bodies of the unknown, diseased or criminals. The holes would then be topped off by stones so as to close the pit. (Bible scriptures: Psalm 69:14,15 Deliver me out of the mire and let me not sink. Let me be delivered from those who hate me and out of the deep waters. Let not the floodwater overflow me nor let the deep swallow me up, and let not the pit shut its mouth on me. And Psalm 40:2 He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, and He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm. THESE scriptures are about rescue, redemption, resurrection through the power of God)

    Movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” have used this term most likely because of the reference to worthless ground and the garbage that is disposed of there.

  • odadrian

    „“Where did he go to school?”
    “Trinity College Cambridge. Prince Charles went there.”
    She was smiling with wistful pride.
    “Before that,” I said.
    “Potter’s Field,” she said. “His father went there. And his grandfather. Hugo called it the Eton for athletes, musicians and thugs. He meant it as a compliment.”
    “Which one was he?”
    “An athlete. My husband was good at games, detective.”
    Tony Parsons – The Murder Bag

    Is very weird! With this Potter’ Field! I am confused. In context, he, his housband, studied at… cemetery?? I think not! So, what means here Poter’s Field? A college? A town? Euphemistic, a place of dishonor and abandonment?

  • Missy

    I dreamed of coins of regret .. And wasn’t sure what that meant and as I looked on the net I was lead to this .. Intresting .. Jennifer if you have any prophetic insight I would love to hear it -missy

  • Karl

    Thank you Jennifer for your information, as I am researching info for a novel that has to do with the thirty pieces of silver and the info around it. Very helpful. God Bless. Karl

  • Phill

    Tom Waits has a track titled Potters Field on his Asylum Years album – bit of useless information.

  • Kathleen Burns

    70 years young and always updating my vocab & proofreading skills.

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