ah-tray aa-tair-DEET. Click below to hear this.*
Funny thing about this expression! The French actually says entry forbidden, while the English says no crossing over. The French sign conjures up a domain we are are not permitted to enter; the English, a line, imaginary or real, that we are not to cross.
But consider this: Christians who pray the Lord’s Prayer in English say (in one version) “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Are we asking forgiveness for climbing the fence to cut across grumpy Old Man Smith’s cornfield? Or forgiving the neighbor kid who keeps playing ball on our lawn?
It’s not that literal, even if we must count such misdeeds among our sins. It means we have crossed a line and behaved badly toward someone else: with anger, prejudice, hatred, jealousy, or selfishness. That is a domain where we should not tread: entrée interdite.
There’s more. An old-fashioned or literary French word for death is le trépas. The verb is trépasser, to die. Language such as this imagines death as a crossing over: trans-, Latin for across, and passus, Latin for a step. To step across a line, a boundary, into “The undiscovered country from whose bourn No traveler returns…” (Hamlet, III, i, 56).
Who knew that private property might be the link between sin and death?
*Some mobile phones, such as Blackberries, won’t display the audio player. If no player appears, here’s an alternative link to the audio file: