Q: Seeing “filled with centuries-old pottery sherds” in a poem made me wonder if the poet intentionally changed shards into sherds or made a mistake. But then I googled “sherds” and got many hits. My spellchecker still wants to change it to “shards.” Your comments?
A: The word for a piece of broken pottery, glass, metal, and so on has been spelled all sorts of ways since it showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, including sceard, scherd, scheard, schord, shard, and sherd.
Dictionaries now include two standard spellings, “shard” and “sherd,” but most of them consider “sherd” a variant of the more common “shard.”
However, Oxford Dictionaries online defines “sherd” specifically as a short form of “potsherd,” a broken piece of pottery, especially one found at an archaeological site.
And Merriam-Webster online says “sherd” can refer generally to a fragment of something, or specifically to “a fragment of a pottery vessel found on sites and in refuse deposits where pottery-making peoples have lived.”
As M-W explains, “English speakers have adopted the modernized shard spelling for most uses, but archeologists prefer to spell the word sherd when referring to the ancient fragments of pottery they unearth.”
In “At the Metropolitan Museum,” the poem that got your attention, Matthew Siegel is using “sherds” in the archeological sense when he writes that “in the museum there is a room / filled with centuries-old pottery sherds / and it is difficult not to start seeing / symbols everywhere.”
The Old English word for a broken piece of pottery, sceard, is derived from the prehistoric Germanic skardo- (notched, cut, separated, broken) and the Proto-Indo-European sker– (to cut), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
In a paper in Studia Neophilologica, a journal specializing in Germanic and Romance philology, Karl P. Wentersdorf explains that the term had “two distinct lines of semantic development” in English—a cutting sense (as in the verbs “score,” “share,” and “shear”) and a sense relating to the byproducts of cutting (“shirt, “short,” and “skirt”).
When sceard showed up in Old English, the OED says, it referred to the result of cutting (“a gap in an enclosure, esp. in a hedge or bank”) and a byproduct of cutting (“a fragment of broken earthenware”). The gap sense is now chiefly dialectal.
The dictionary’s earliest example, from the Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici, a document written sometime before 1000, uses “sceard” in the sense of a gap.
The first Oxford example for the term used as a fragment of earthenware is from a Latin-Old English glossary written around 1000: “Testarum, scearda.”
(The OED cites the fourth-century Roman Christian poet Prudentius for this use of testarum. In a description of the martyrdom of St. Vincent, he uses fragmenta testarum to describe the potsherds that Vincent is forced to lie on.)
Here’s a Middle English example in the OED (with the noun spelled “shord”) from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “My vertue driede as a shord.”
And here’s a Modern English “shardes” example from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, written around 1600: “Shardes, Flints, and Peebles, should be throwne on her.” We’ve expanded the citation, which refers to Ophelia’s body.
Although the “sherd” and “shard” spellings showed up in Middle English (mid-12th to late 15th centuries), the OED has a “shord” citation from as late as 1881.
Here’s a recent “shard” example, from the March 2, 2017, issue of the South Bend (IN) Tribune: “All of a sudden, ‘bang,’ and there’s 12-inch shards of glass flying through my house.” A resident was describing a powerful storm.
And here’s a recent “sherd” example, from the March 1, 2017, issue of the Idaho County Free Press, a weekly in Grangeville, ID: “Excavations in the summer of 2010 at the WWII Kooskia Internment Camp uncovered this pottery sherd.”