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Origin of transfer

1350鈥1400; Middle English transferren (v.) <Latin tr膩nsferre, equivalent to tr膩ns-trans- + ferre to bear1, carry


Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 漏 Random House, Inc. 2023


Where does聽transfer聽come from?

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

Transfer entered English around 1350鈥40. It ultimately derives from the Latin verb tr膩nsferre, which principally meant 鈥渢o carry or bring across.鈥 The verb is composed of two parts. The first part is tr膩ns-, a prefix based on the adverb and preposition tr膩ns, meaning 鈥渁cross, beyond, through.鈥 The second part is ferre, a verb meaning 鈥渢o bear, carry,鈥 among many other senses. The English verb bear, as in 鈥渂earing a load,鈥 is actually an etymological cousin to the Latin ferre.

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

Now for tr膩ns-. Tr膩ns– 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 tr膩ns- means 鈥渁cross, beyond, through鈥 shed any new light on what these words mean?

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

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

Dig deeper聽

Translate is another word related to transfer鈥攁nd 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鈥檒l recall, 鈥渢o carry鈥) formed past tenses based on tul墨 (鈥淚 carried鈥), and formed part participles based on l膩tus. That means translate is derived from the past participle form of transfer: tr膩nsl膩tus, literally 鈥渃arried across,鈥 as in a text that has been copied over.

Isn鈥檛 it wild how so many words are related? Yep, relatealong with relationship, relation, and many other words鈥攃omes from the past participle form of referre (鈥渢o carry back,鈥 source of refer), which was rel膩tus.

Did you know ... ?

We are not done with Latin verb ferre (鈥渢o bear, carry鈥) yet! The verb is also the source of fer, a combining form meaning 鈥渢hat which carries鈥 the thing specified by the initial element, used in the formation of compound words鈥攍ike an aquifer carries water (the Latin aqua means 鈥渨ater鈥). Other familiar examples include conifer and crucifer.

The form -fer is closely related to -ferous, a combining form meaning 鈥渂earing,鈥 鈥減roducing,鈥 鈥測ielding,鈥 鈥渃ontaining,鈥 and 鈥渃onveying,鈥 also used in the formation of compound words, especially in science. There are many examples, including:

How to use transfer in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for transfer


verb (tr忙ns藞f蓽藧) -fers, -ferring or -ferred
noun (藞tr忙nsf蓽藧)

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 漏 William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 漏 HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012