The excellent freelance writer Jon Penland took this picture on his travels around the county, and posted it on Facebook. When I first saw it I was amused. The sign reads, “Park closed from Sunset to Sunrise. Violators will be trespassed.” But I didn’t hate the sign. It’s actually charming. And I like that all the words are spelled correctly. It makes me think of the spell check poem: they did manage to get the words right. But why capitalize “sunset” and “sunrise”? I assume because they just didn’t know any better.
I was going to razz Jon about his pedantry. But I don’t know him that well, and he wouldn’t understand that I would actually be razzing myself. I once found a flier from a local transit system with many errors in it. So I marked it up and mailed it back to them. But it was thinking back on that act that I realized that I was wrong. The truth was that the flier, while wrong, was perfectly clear. And it came from a transit system, not a publisher. So what’s the big deal? Ever since, I’ve tried to be more understanding.
Is Trespass Wrong In This Context?
It looks like the writer meant “arrest” or “prosecute” where they wrote “trespass.” However, the use of “trespass” in this way is not actually wrong. Look at the definitions of the word. One is “to do something that hurts or offends someone.” Certainly, being arrested would fall within this definition.
But even more, another definition of trespass is “the legal action for injuries resulting from trespass.” I wasn’t aware of that definition, but maybe the writer of the sign was. Maybe the big joke is on all of us and the sign, while unusual, is precise. I doubt it, but it does take some of the fun out of laughing at the sign.
Consider also how one of the most famous passages from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:12) is often translated, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Now the sign is starting to seem more reasonable. And in this context, it has an almost Quentin Tarantino feel to it: the cops aren’t just gonna arrest you; they’re gonna trespass your ass. Say it like Samuel L Jackson! It’s fun: trespass your ass!
Odd Language Is Edifying
I don’t want to take away anyone’s fun. It’s nice to laugh at odd signs. But we can also learn from them. We can delight in their idiosyncrasies. It reminds me of this great scene from A Late Quartet. In it, Christopher Walken’s character tells a story about Pablo Casals (which is apparently true) where he praises a young musician who performs poorly because of a few brief moments of delight and transcendence.
I don’t hold it against anyone who laughed at this sign. It is odd. It is almost certainly the result of ignorance. And I laughed at it myself. But if we look for the good in it, it’s actually lovely. Right or wrong, it offers us a new way of looking at the language.
And to take us back to the Sermon on the Mount, I have no trouble forgiving the trespass of that sign (if it be a trespass). I have trespassed so much worse in my own life!