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Origin of transfer

1350–1400; Middle English transferren (v.) <Latin trānsferre, equivalent to trāns-trans- + ferre to bear1, carry


Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021


Where does transfer come from?

Transfer is an excellent example of how a little knowledge of Latin can go a long way.

Transfer entered English around 1350–40. It ultimately derives from the Latin verb trānsferre, which principally meant “to carry or bring across.” The verb is composed of two parts. The first part is trāns-, a prefix based on the adverb and preposition trāns, meaning “across, beyond, through.” The second part is ferre, a verb meaning “to bear, carry,” among many other senses. The English verb bear, as in “bearing a load,” is actually an etymological cousin to the Latin ferre.

Trāns- and ferre appear in many other English words. Let’s start with ferre. Prefer comes from the Latin praeferre, “to bear or set before” (learn more at pre, preference). Refer comes from the Latin referre, “to bring back” (re, reference). Infer comes from inferre, “to bring in” (in, inference). This next origin may put a new spin on the word for you: suffer comes from sufferre, literally “to bear under,” with suf- a variant of sub- “under.” Defer and deference ultimately comes from—slight curveball here—differre, “to bear apart, carry away.” Differre is also the source of differ, different, and difference.

Now for trāns-. Trāns– was incredibly productive in Latin. That means it was used to produce many new words, especially verbs (and their related forms) that have made their way into English, including:

Does knowing that trāns- means “across, beyond, through” shed any new light on what these words mean?

Some other common words directly derived from Latin and featuring trāns- are transit, translucent, and transparent.

Trāns-, naturalized as trans, is also very productive in English. Some familiar examples include transconintental, trans-fat, and transgender.

Dig deeper 

Translate is another word related to transfer—and not just because they both feature the trans- prefix.

Now, English has irregular verbs: saw is the past tense of see, for instance, and bought is the past tense of buy. Latin had irregular verbs, too, as do many other languages. Without getting too technical, the verb ferre (meaning, if you’ll recall, “to carry”) formed past tenses based on tulī (“I carried”), and formed part participles based on lātus. That means translate is derived from the past participle form of transfer: trānslātus, literally “carried across,” as in a text that has been copied over.

Isn’t it wild how so many words are related? Yep, relatealong with relationship, relation, and many other words—comes from the past participle form of referre (“to carry back,” source of refer), which was relātus.

Did you know ... ?

We are not done with Latin verb ferre (“to bear, carry”) yet! The verb is also the source of fer, a combining form meaning “that which carries” the thing specified by the initial element, used in the formation of compound words—like an aquifer carries water (the Latin aqua means “water”). Other familiar examples include conifer and crucifer.

The form -fer is closely related to -ferous, a combining form meaning “bearing,” “producing,” “yielding,” “containing,” and “conveying,” also used in the formation of compound words, especially in science. There are many examples, including:

Example sentences from the Web for transfer

British Dictionary definitions for transfer


verb (trænsˈfɜː) -fers, -ferring or -ferred

noun (ˈtrænsfɜː)

Derived forms of transfer

transferable or transferrable, adjectivetransferability, noun

Word Origin for transfer

C14: from Latin transferre, from trans- + ferre to carry
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Medical definitions for transfer

[ trănsfər ]


The conveyance or removal of something from one place to another.
A condition in which learning in one situation influences learning in another situation. It may be positive, as when learning one behavior facilitates the learning of something else, or negative, as when one habit interferes with the acquisition of a later one.

Other words from transfer

trans•fer (trăns-fûr, trănsfər) v.
The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.