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)

Continue reading “What is the “tres” in “trespass”?”

Where do the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from?

With roots in ancient astrology and alchemy, the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols may ultimately derive from ancient Greek abbreviations for the names of gods.

This week, President Trump rescinded the Obama administration’s “protections for transgender students that had allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity,” as the New York Times reported

Covering the story, many media outlets have presented images of gender-neutral bathroom signs such as:

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 12.05.32 PM.png
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant bathroom sign, courtesy of adasigndepot.com


This symbol, by no means universally embraced by the transgender community, seeks to depict non-binary gender identity by joining the classical sex symbols for male (♂) and female (♀) with a combined male-female one (⚦).

Where do these male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from, anyway?

Continue reading “Where do the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from?”


Trans fat, transracial, Trans-Pacific Partnership, transgender – indeed, trans- is the prefix of the moment, if we take a look ‘across’ the headlines.

This hummingbird must live forever. "Nectar." Ballpoint on lined paper. Doodle  by @andrescalo.
“Nectar.” Ballpoint and Sharpie on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


In Latin, trans was a preposition meaning “across,” “over,” or “beyond,” often prefixed onto other words, as evidenced in English’s translatetransitive, Transylvania, or transmogrify. It was assimilated in many other words, such as tradition, trajectory, trancetranquil, and travesty. But this simple and utilitarian preposition bears quite the etymological load.

Historical linguists root trans in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *terə-, “to cross over,” “pass through,” or “overcome.” This verb passed through Germanic passages to arrive at the English through and thorough as well as thrill and nostril. Old English had þýrel, a “bore” or “hole,” whose sense of penetration eventually yielded thrill – making nostril literally a nose thrill, or “nose hole.” *Terə- crossed over into Sanskrit, too, yielding avatar, naming a deity that has “crossed over,” or that has come down to earth incarnate.

We overcome difficulties – we come over them, cross over them, pass through them. Ancient Iranian took up this sense of *terə in *thraya, “to protect,” which Persian fashioned into saray, an “inn.” Caravansary and seraglio, among others, preserve these roots. The Latin trux, “savage” or “fierce,” may have had the force “to overcome,” eventually giving English something truculent. Something truncus may have been “overcome,” maimed like a limbless trunk or cut like trench.

Trans trans- 

Many humans ultimately wish to overcome the great ‘beyond’: death. The ancient Greek gods figured that one out – with the help of etymology, of course – with a little drink called νέκταρor nectar. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD)*nectar joins the PIE *nek-, “death,” and *terə, producing “to overcome death.”

Summer’s upon us. Better get those nectarines while they last. Unless they’re making a transcontinental or transoceanic transit – immortals eat local.

*Thanks to the AHD for help with many of the derivatives of *terə– that crossed over into English.

m ∫ r ∫