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).

Page 1 of 2 | Next page