My wife and I enjoy reading the police report in the local paper, which frequently amuses us with tales like these:

An animal was removed from a chicken coop at a Pelham Road residence. The owner of the chickens was given advice on how to keep other animals from attacking the chickens.

A black bear wandering in and out of traffic on Shays Street was not located by police.

(We don’t live in a high-crime area, though there are occasionally worrying rashes of burglaries.) This morning, my wife asked me “What does asportation mean?” “Gotta be a typo,” I responded. (The paper’s typos are so frequent and so awful I’ve given up complaining about them, since they obviously don’t give a damn.) “But it occurs twice,” she said. I took a look. A story about two people “facing charges related to a shoplifting incident” ended thus:

The woman will be summoned to court on a a charges [sic!] of larceny over $250 and shoplifting by asportation, second offense, while the man will be summoned to court on charges of larceny over $250 and shoplifting by asportation, third offense [sic, no period]

This word asportation is not in M-W or AHD, but it’s in various law references, several of them collected here; West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, for instance, defines it as “The removal of items from one place to another, such as carrying things away illegally.” And it’s in the OnEtDic: “from Latin asportationem (nominative asportatio) ‘a carrying away,’ noun of action from past participle stem of asportare ‘to carry off,’ from abs– ‘away’ […] + portare ‘to carry.'” So there you have it. And remember, kids, crime doesn’t pay!


  1. J.W. Brewer says:

    Blackstone’s classic exposition of the common-law elements of the crime of larceny says in pertinent part: “THERE must not only be a taking, but a carrying away: cepit et asportavit was the old law-latin. A bare removal from the place in which he found the goods, though the thief does not quite make off with them, is a sufficient asportation, or carrying away. As if a man be leading another’s horse out of a close, and he be apprehended in the fact; or, if a guest, stealing goods out of an inn, has removed them from his chamber down stairs; these have been adjudged sufficient carryings away, to constitute a larceny. Or if a thief, intending to steal plate, takes it out of a chest in which it was, and lays it down upon the floor, but is surprised before he can make his escape with it; this is larceny.”

    I think I first heard the word not in a law-school class but while preparing for the bar exam. I’m not sure I’ve heard it since. My best guess is that, as with a lot of words that were part of the common jargon of Anglophone lawyers 200+ years ago, it has been retained in common jargon in some US jurisdictions (maybe because it is used in the specific wording of a statute, although there could be other reasons) while becoming obsolete in others.

  2. I hadn’t known about this dissimilation of abs- to as- before p; it seems to be regular, though the only other example I can find is as-pello “drive away”. ETA: turns out it’s not dissimilation but part of a more general loss of stops and liquids before sT, as in a(*d)spicio, su(*b)stineo, te(*r)stis; dexter from *deksiteros shows that it preceded syncope.

    So what is shoplifting not by asportation?

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    The Massachusetts shoplifting statute seems to cover various scenarios that would not have been common-law larceny (whether because of lack of asportation or some other element), such as where you take the item out of the store with the store’s knowledge and consent but having paid too little because e.g. you deliberately switched the price tag with the price tag on a much cheaper item before bringing it to the register to pay. Whether in the current jargon of Massachusetts cops/courts/lawyers that would be the non-asportative kind of shoplifting is not clear to me, however.

  4. By this definition, all shoppers commit asportation when they remove retail merchandise from shelves into shopping carts.

    It’s not quite clear to me at what moment asportation becomes “shoplifting by asportation”

  5. Perhaps… each of the alleged perpetrators took an item, then each tossed the taken items to the other one, and then they both left the store. Each of them did a taking and an asportation, which adds up to shoplifting.

  6. English law has statutory offences of “taking without owner’s consent” (1968) and “”making off without payment” (1978)

  7. David Marjanović says:


    Oh, so the witness is the third one who stands there at the scene of the crime?

  8. Oh, so the witness is the third one who stands there at the scene of the crime?
    AFAIK this originates in contract law – two counterparts agree on something and the third person witnesses.

  9. It’s not quite clear to me at what moment asportation becomes “shoplifting by asportation”

    It’s a rule of reason: When would a reasonable person conclude that you had removed the goods from the store’s control based on your intent to take something without proper payment? If you see from inside the store that your car is on fire, and you rush outside with a basket of the store’s goods still in your hands, it probably is not shoplifting if you return them as promptly as the situation allows.

    In NYC it is common to see signs that say “Shop with baskets, not with bags”, as the assumption is that things in bags have been paid for, possibly at another store. (Unlike most Americans, we tend to shop daily or every few days in small quantities at a variety of fairly small stores — even the supermarket closest to me has only four aisles, though others nearby are bigger.)

    The charge of eating while shopping is new to me, however. I have been known to eat a packaged piece of food or drink while in the store, retain the packaging, and have it properly scanned and paid for when I check out. I’ll make sure not to do that in Massachusetts!

  10. – The charge of eating while shopping

    Based on definition above, it’s still “shoplifting by asportation”, I believe.

    Removing candy from the shelf into your belly.

    – I’ll make sure not to do that in Massachusetts!

    I wouldn’t advise doing that anywhere in the world. Shop staff, if they were so inclined, could easily argue that you were in the process of shoplifting by eating (or whatever it’s called) when they stopped you.

    Your intent to pay later can’t be proved – video cameras can’t capture your thoughts, but they sure do record your actions.

  11. I wouldn’t advise doing that anywhere in the world.

    I agree — just because you haven’t had a problem so far doesn’t mean you’ll continue to be lucky. All it takes is one suspicious/malicious clerk.

  12. Fortunately, in the U.S. it is not up to me to prove my good intentions, it is up to the store or the public prosecutor to prove that I had bad ones (the presumption of innocence). If challenged, I would certainly pay on the spot, but after 35+ years that has never happened. Some checkout clerks mention to me that I’m passing them an empty package (on the assumption that I’ve made a mistake), but when I say “I ate it already”, they just smile and continue.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    JC: “Shop with baskets, not with bags”

    Baskets are openwork, you can see what’s in them, unlike most bags.

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    I don’t know the history of the law in this area, but I wouldn’t be surprised if shoplifting statutes had to be developed and tweaked over the course of the 19th/20th centuries because the nature of the typical shopping process made the ancient definition of larceny a poor fit — if when you initially pick up and start asporting the store’s goods you are doing so with the store’s consent, on the assumption you are going to pay for them in the usual fashion before actually leaving the store with them, there’s likely a technical problem in making the old definition fit, i.e. the line into illegality is typically crossed not when you first take the item into your possession and move with it, but when you subsequently exit the store w/o paying or take some sketchy-looking preparatory step toward exiting-store-without-paying (slip the item into a pocket, detach or disable the security tag so it won’t cause a beep when you exit, etc.).

    Note that some kinds of goods are typically kept behind the counter either for quasi-regulatory reasons (cigarettes) or just because (depending on the store’s location and risk profile) they are e.g. unusually small and thus to shoplift without detection. That sort of interaction, where you need to ask for what you want and the storekeeper essentially puts it down on the counter simultaneously with you putting your money down and you don’t pick it up until you’ve paid, avoids these conceptual difficulties. And if you grab it off the counter and asport it by running out the door at the point where you would have been expected to pay, that’s easily larceny under the vintage definition.

  15. I wouldn’t advise doing that anywhere in the world.\

    In US it is safe, at least if you happen to be white and look middle class. Supermarkets really don’t like to make a fuss. I even went so far as eating food without any packaging (like a bagel) and then just telling a cashier to charge me for it.

  16. Indeed, NYS has no specific shoplifting statute: shop lifting is petit or grand larceny depending on the dollar value.

    m-l: Just so.

  17. January First-of-May says:

    Most stores I’ve been to seem to have no problem with me carrying a backpack (even, and perhaps especially, a very large one), as long as I don’t actually hit the shelves with it (which is admittedly tricky with a full hiking backpack).
    Some places insist on putting the backpack in a storage locker outside the main store area; if the lockers are really small, and/or my backpack is really big, and it’s obvious that the backpack won’t fit in a locker, even those guys tend to shrug and allow me anyway.
    A few of the larger stores insisted on putting the backpack in a special huge plastic bag; a few times, when I showed up with a particularly huge backpack, they ended up making holes in the plastic bag to let the shoulder straps out, so that I could still carry it as a backpack anyway.

    I don’t think I ever tried eating groceries that I hadn’t yet paid for, however (though some stores have grocery sections with separate cash registers, so in principle it’s possible to still be inside the store even after paying for the item – not that I’d risk it either way; and Auchan Gagarinsky even has an entire in-store cafeteria, though I hadn’t actually eaten anything there yet either).

  18. Richard Hershberger says:

    @ J.W. Brewer:
    “My best guess is that, as with a lot of words that were part of the common jargon of Anglophone lawyers 200+ years ago, it has been retained in common jargon in some US jurisdictions (maybe because it is used in the specific wording of a statute, although there could be other reasons) while becoming obsolete in others.”

    My favorite example of this is the office of the “Prothonotary,” which survives in an utterly random grab bag of jurisdictions, including all but one of the Courts of Common Pleas in Pennsylvania, two Australian states, and the Vatican.

  19. I had heard of the word ‘prothonotary’ on account of this splendid bird. It doesn’t particularly put me in mind of a law clerk, but perhaps I missing something.

  20. J.W. Brewer says:

    Each county in my native Delaware (which was affiliated, with varying degrees of autonomy, with Pennsylvania during much of the colonial period) also still has a prothonotary. It has perhaps become more obscure since having transitioned (I believe sometime since my own boyhood, although googling couldn’t quickly turn up the date of the relevant tweak to the state constitution) from an elective office to an appointed one, but it’s still there.

  21. I had an impression that protonothary was a highly ranked Byzantine official, usually an eunuch.

    It’s fascinating that they survived in America of all places

  22. Lars (the original one) says:

    Many supermarkets in Sweden let you use a hand scanner to register items you collect and pay for them at automated checkouts. I usually put the items into my backpack directly (inside the store) and nobody has ever complained; there are occasional random checks at the checkout, however. (And you do need to have a membership card to use the system).

  23. Quoth WP on the prothonotary warbler: “This bird was supposedly named after certain prelates in the Roman Catholic Church known as protonotaries, due to its golden plumage (although protonotaries apostolic wear purple robes). It was once known as the golden swamp warbler.” But nooooo, that would be too sensible a name for a bird.

  24. The word “apportation” is of course related. It has two main usages: 1) materializing an object out of the spirit world, in a seance. 2) magically grabbing an object at a distance, in a role-playing game or similar fiction.

    Players of the roguelike Omega may recall Apportation as a useful spell to steal one high-value item while standing just inside the door of a sleeping dragon’s cave.

  25. Lars (the original one) says:

    Apport is also the Danish dog command for for ‘fetch’.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    The word “apportation” is of course related.

    It’s the opposite: ad-portare “carry to” instead of abs-portare “carry away”.

    Apportieren is “fetch” when dogs do it in German, but the actual command tends to be the normal word for “fetch”, if indeed any is needed.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    Danish apport, German apportieren: these must from French apporter ‘to bring’ (an object, not a person).

  28. Apport is also the Danish dog command for for ‘fetch’.

    Likewise Russian апорт; they’re presumably both from French.

  29. Lars (the original one) says:

    The verb is indeed apportere which should have imperative apportér, but the dogs don’t care.

    I’m sure Danish got it from German though:

    Hver Mand, som med Kløgt gik i Lærdom til Bund,
    Latin paa Papiret kun malte,
    med Fruerne Fransk, og Tydsk med sin Hund
    og Dansk med sin Tjener han talte.

            Christian Wilster, 1827

  30. Convincing evidence indeed.

  31. Amusingly, GT renders Tydsk as ‘timid’. Wikt says that the current Danish for ‘timid’ is frygtsom, something I never would have guessed, for frightsome (arch.) means ‘scary’, not ‘scared’.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    Furchtsam does mean “easily scared”, though.

  33. Oxford English dictionary says

    frightsome, adj.
    1. Causing fright; frightening, frightful. Also in weakened use as an intensifier.

    †2. Frightened, fearful. Obs. rare.

    1827 T. Carlyle tr. F. H. K. de La Motte Fouqué in German Romance I. 306 Edwald and Froda had their own almost frightsome thoughts on the matter.
    1886 London Jrnl. 22 May 332/2 This young gentleman be so loike my lord that I beant surprised Ben be frightsome loike.

  34. Likewise Russian апорт

    Also a variety of apples:

  35. Yes, but that’s a different word, probably (via Polish japurt) from Middle High German apfalter ‘apple tree.’

  36. David Marjanović says:

    …That’s something I had no idea of.

  37. Lars (the original one) says:

    ‘Terrible’ is frygtelig in Danish. I cannot guess where GT got its match for Tydsk, but regularizing to Tysk does help.

  38. Lars: so, “apportere” is the ordinary verb, with the imperative form used for dogs being “apport” instead of the expected form *”apportér”. Interesting: at first glance you might think that the French verb was borrowed, as was its imperative form (perfectly regular in French), and that we have an example of borrowed inflection. Hmm…borrowed inflection is not common, and here we’ve an example (seemingly) of a borrowed inflection used for a specifically non-human addressee. There might be potential for an article here…I can see it already: “Danish ‘apport’: The intersection between borrowed inflection and specifically canine morphological apocope: a critique of so-called ‘Universal Grammar’ and its human-centered biases.”

    However, I wonder whether the verb and the command might not have each been borrowed separately (probably via (Low?) German) into Danish.

  39. The frightsome definitions are the usual confusion with words like suspicious and nauseous and happy, which can apply to either the person experiencing the feeling or whatever inspired it.

  40. marie-lucie says:


    In this case the “borrowed” infinitive inflection is the bare stem of the verb, which is not felt as inflective, so that it is likely that the form was borrowed as an interjection, “Apporte!”, like “Sit!” or “Heel!” or whatever is used to order animals about. Then a full verb form was half-created, half-borrowed from French according to an already known pattern, e.g. German -ieren for French verbs in -er.

  41. Well, in interjections, and especially those given to animals, brevity and (supposed) recognizability would probably trump grammatical correctness. I would argue that “Go fetch!” works as an interjection, but not quite as a proper imperative, where it would have to be “Go fetch it!”.

  42. Mongolian dog commands are all in Mongolian with exception of “Апорт!”, “Фу!” and “Фас!”.

    The latter is the most scary. You wouldn’t want to be bitten by something like

  43. Фас is of course German “Fass!” Interesting that it made it to Mongolia (most likely through Russian).

  44. Фу is German too.


  45. Could be, it’s harder to tell with interjections like that.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    It’s fuj deep into the Balkans, too.

  47. Lars (the original one) says:

    However, I wonder whether the verb and the command might not have each been borrowed separately (probably via (Low?) German) into Danish.

    That is not at all unlikely.

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