What is the “tres” in “trespass”?

The recent arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting for a business associate has sparked outrage, protests, a national conversation on racism, and efforts from Starbucks to address implicit bias among its employees.

It has also sparked, from me, an etymological consideration of two words that have frequently come up in discussion of the troubling incident: trespass and loiter

Unless you’re white. (Pixabay)


Trespass is first attested as a noun in the late 1200s, naming a “transgression,” “breach of the law,” “offense,” or “sin.” The trans- in transgression is operative here, as trespass comes from the French trespasser, literally “to pass across.” It ultimately joins the Latin trans (beyond, across) and passus (step, pace).

Trans, as we’ve previously examined, is a common prefix in English. The French know it very well, too, as the tres- in its trespasser is the same as that distinctively French adverb très, “very,” as in très bien.

Latin’s passus provides various English pass words, as it has the French pas, seen in the French negation construction ne…pas, e.g., Je ne sais pas, “I don’t know” or literally “I know not a step.” In modern French, pas alone can negate in colloquial speech. Très intéressant, n’est-ce pas?

In French, trespass went on to meant “to die,” used euphemistically much like we say someone has “passed on” in English. In English, trespass took on specific legal senses in the 1400s.

By 1455, we have record in Scottish forestry laws for trespass as a verb for “unlawfully entering someone else’s property.” This is the main surviving sense of trespass in English today—except for those, like me, who had to memorize the Our Father.

The Christian prayer features the passage: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” While it confuses many a person who principally associates trespass with “No Trespassing” signs ominously displayed on fences and gates, this trespass preserves its older meaning of “offend or do wrong.”

Indeed, we can find trespasses in the Lord’s Prayer in the 1526 Tyndale Bible, though earlier translations use the Old English gylta (“sin, offense, crime” related to guilt) and debts.


Loiter looks like it could be a French loanword, what with its oi seen in other French words like moi and its –er, the infinitive marker of French verbs.

But no, it’s not French. It’s Dutch. Middle Dutch has loteren, “to be loose” (like a tooth or sail, as the etymology dictionaries like to note) and Modern Dutch leuteren, “to dawdle,” “linger,” or “loiter,” like its English offspring. 

The Dutch roots may be related to the English lout, a “bumpkin” perhaps named because they were “hunched over,” or made to seem more little, another possible cognate to loiter.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry for loiter hasn’t been updated since 1903, so I cite it with caution. But it dates loiter in English to the early 1400s, first meaning “to idle” before expanding to its various “time-wasting” senses in English, including the legal phrase to loiter with intent (of committing a crime).

The OED also, colorfully, notes: “The word was probably introduced into English by foreign ‘loiterers’ or vagrants.” Seems they went to a Starbucks, apparently.

m ∫ r ∫

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4 thoughts on “What is the “tres” in “trespass”?

  1. I hate you I had it all worked out in my mind that trespassing was an old English term they called locks of hair trusses and I figured lovers would wander through the forest and exchange locks of hair and then finally people put up signs saying no trespassing but you made it a Latin word so I guess I have to give up on that I really enjoyed your definition thank you


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