Behind the Dictionary

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Trespassers Will Be Trespassed

My sons and I arrived early at the mall movie theatre last weekend, so the three of us decided to explore a little. Doug, Adam, and I walked up to the multiplex's mostly empty upper floor, and down the hall that accessed the back exits to some of the individual theatres. We realized that we could sneak into some movies this way, by simply boarding the elevator on the ground floor, in the public area of the mall, and exiting on this floor, inside the theatre. Bypassing the box office and guest services desk, we'd be free to enter the theatres from the back.

In search of other discoveries, we continued to the end of the hall, where we saw an exit sign, and decided to see where the exit passage led. We descended a metal staircase, checking out sparse graffiti on bare drywall. At the bottom of the stairs, I was puzzled to see that the passage that had been labeled an exit at the top of the stairs was now an area for "Authorized Personnel Only." So we turned back. Back on the main level of the theatre, Doug remarked that the sign had also said, "Violators will be trespassed." Adam and I told him he must have misread, but he was insistent, so we turned away from the concession area to check out his story. We went to another out-of-the-way exit door, which Doug realized was near the bottom of the stairs we'd climbed. We held the door open while Doug went back to the sign and took this picture:

He was right!

I've seen signs that say "Violators will be prosecuted," and some that say, "Trespassers will be prosecuted" — although Garner's Modern American Usage points out that since trespassing is usually a tort rather than a crime, prosecute is usually the wrong word. And of course, there are the (semi-)joking versions that say, "Trespassers will be violated," which has been mentioned in places such as a 1983 issue of Verbatim, and dates back at least to 1958, according to Google Books. I wondered if the theatre sign was a joke, put up by a rogue employee, or maybe just some other explorer like us. Or maybe the creator of the theatre sign had had in mind Trespassers will be violated, realized it was a joke, didn't quite know how to fix it, and ended up just swapping the verbs trespass and violate. However, I've since learned that the verb trespass has picked up a new meaning in the last twenty years or so, one which hasn't yet made it into any of the dictionaries I've checked.

Following a suggestion from Jonathon Owen of Arrant Pedantry, I called the number on the sign the next day and talked with a man from mall security, who told me that trespassed meant "evicted from the premises for a certain period of time." He also said that he had been confused at first, too: "I felt the exact same way as you."

Trespass, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes via French from the Latin trans ‘across' and passare ‘pass'. It has been used in English since about 1300, and is usually an intransitive verb, sometimes taking a preposition, as in trespass upon or as we forgive those who trespass against us. In the past it has also been used as a transitive verb, taking as its direct object the person that the trespasser injures. An OED citation from 1523: "They had greatly trespassed the prince." Even the line from the Lord's Prayer has had transitive trespass in some translations: The OED cites a 1526 publication of the Bible as having "even as we forgeve them which treaspas vs." These days, you can find transitive trespass with the property as the direct object, as in this line from the Orlando Sentinel in 1989: "Cutting through parking lots is trespassing, and private property should not be trespassed." But both of those uses refer to going where you shouldn't go or doing what you shouldn't do, not to banning someone from your property.

The earliest attestation I've found for trespass with that meaning is from 1990, in a digest of criminal court cases from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida:

… the defendant will stay away from the community of Plantersville so long as the Beardens and Mott family live there, particularly stay away from and is trespassed from Nina Mott or any member of her family...

The next example is from six years later, in a similar digest from the same publisher, this one with court cases in Hawaii. A police officer is quoted as saying:

If [Defendant] wanted to continue going to other clubs in Waikiki, he's more than welcome to, but he was being trespassed from [sic] Hernando's Hideaway per management.

The [sic] is especially interesting. Is it calling out this innovative usage of trespass, or just the choice of preposition? (And by the way, how do you quote something that includes a [sic] and show that it's part of the original quotation, not your own comment?)

As we enter the 21st century, this new version of trespass comes with an explanatory comment in this 2001 attestation:

…Faber alleges in his Complaint that he was "trespassed" from the Mason City Menards store, which meant that he was banned from ever reentering that Menards location.

However, to step back to the 20th century for a moment, there's an impressive blossoming of "ban-from" trespass in J. Robert Wyman's 1999 book, Loss Prevention and the Small Business: The Security Professionalʼs Guide to Asset Protection Strategies. Starting on page 90, you can find examples in various finite and nonfinite forms, in both active and passive voice, apparently written with the full expectation that the reader would have no trouble accepting them:

Fingers was trespassed from the store for two (2) years ….

If your policy states that all shoplifters will be trespassed, then trespass every shoplifter. Subsequently, prosecute every trespassed person who enters your store without permission. If you pick and choose who you trespass, or who you arrest for violating that trespass, then you open yourself up to charges of prejudice and discrimination. …

Most state laws allow you to trespass any person who disrupts the usual flow of business. …

The person being trespassed first has to know what acts constitute a disruption of the business.

You do not have the right to detain someone for no other purpose but to trespass them from your property.

The longest of those passages gives a clue as to the origin of this usage of trespass. It mentions "who you trespass, or who you arrest for violating that trespass." Evidently, trespass can be used as a noun to refer to the action of telling someone they're trespassing on your property. From there, as readers of Visual Thesaurus are probably well aware, it's an easy step to "verb" that noun, so that trespass can mean "to give someone a trespass notice", i.e. notify them that they're trespassing.

Of course, notifying someone that they are trespassing is not the same as banning them from your property for some period of time. But given the high likelihood of these events co-occurring, the meaning extension is understandable.

Examples of this "ban-from" trespass continue to turn up in the 21st century, and interestingly, although all the examples I've mentioned here are from American sources, they are noticeably more common in New Zealand. Here's the earliest one I've found, in the Christchurch Press of July 9, 1998, via ProQuest:

He said before the protesters could be trespassed each one had to be informed individually and in a clear and unequivocal way that their right to be there had been revoked.

And the most recent, also via ProQuest, from the Manawatu Standard of June 2, 2012:

A Palmerston North man shocked to find titillating toys among the tiaras in the children's section of a discount store was trespassed by police after he confronted the shop's owner.

The Kiwi affinity for this version of trespass is confirmed in the most recent corpus in Mark Davies' BYU collection of corpora: the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE). Of the 19 Anglophone countries represented, the strongest results for BE + trespassed come from New Zealand, as do those for any form of the verb trespass followed by a pronoun or proper noun.

"Ban-from" trespass has gone mostly unnoticed, but not entirely. On the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange ("a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts"), a discussion popped up last year about a headline (in a New Zealand newspaper) that used trespass to mean "ban." One participant, James McLeod, simply called it "illiterate newspaperese," but another going by the handle of ruakh (who also happens to be a frequent commenter on my blog), offered up several hits from a Google search for "trespassed him." All but one were from states in the Deep South, which makes me wonder if the unremarked use in the 1990 Alabama case is close to the origin of this innovation.

So how can this new meaning of trespass coexist with the old one? Somehow it does. You can even find them both in the same passage. Nestled among all the examples I listed above from Loss Prevention and the Small Business, there is also this one: "…If someone is on your property without your permission, they are trespassing and can be arrested." I suppose it's no weirder than saying, "I'm baking a cake right now, but it's not finished baking." Still, I'm waiting to see a sign that says, "Trespassers will be trespassed."


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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday April 25th 2013, 2:18 AM
Comment by: Somyos S. (Bangkok Thailand)
English is not my native language, using English language as the second language....still very confuse with the language, but love to study as much as I could.
Thursday April 25th 2013, 9:01 AM
Comment by: Pedro Eleftheriou (São Paulo Brazil)
I would not dare to trespass the boundaries of a living language...for sure fearing to be violated!
Thursday April 25th 2013, 9:14 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Here's how:[sic][sic];(Italicize the last[sic]):)
Thursday April 25th 2013, 9:35 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
Gordon W. -

Is that method the birth of your own mind, or is it already in use somewhere? Not meaning to criticize either way: I like it.[sick]
Thursday April 25th 2013, 12:35 PM
Comment by: Jonathon O. (UT)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Fascinating article, Neal. Thanks for doing the research on it.
Sunday April 28th 2013, 7:11 PM
Comment by: Carl S. (Oceanside, CA)
Let me say something important before I speak.

... Yes, very Fascinating! ...

... And deep.
Friday May 3rd 2013, 1:41 AM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
Long, I hope to finish later. I was on a roll reading, but need to stop and read later to savor.

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