You’ve probably seen the grim photos of the mass burials of unclaimed COVID-19 victims on New York City’s Hart Island. According to a New York Times article published online on April 10, the city has “drastically” increased interments on the island, “to around 24 a day, as many as it would bury there in a week before the pandemic hit.”
This week’s word (or “lexical item,” as the linguists say) comes from the lede of that story:
Since the mid-1800s, New York City’s potter’s field on Hart Island, off the coast of the Bronx, has figured in numerous epidemics affecting New York City — as a burial ground during the Spanish Flu and AIDS crisis, and a quarantine spot for yellow fever and tuberculosis victims.
It wasn’t the first time I’d encountered potter’s field, and it almost certainly wasn’t the first time I’d looked it up. I knew what it meant—a cemetery where indigent or unidentified people are buried in unmarked graves—but why potter?
“The Potter’s Field – The common trench,” by Jacob Riis, c. 1888-1898. Source: International Center for Photography