Etymology Usage

Why do NO HUNTING signs say “POSTED”?

Q: Just the other day, I saw a “POSTED: NO HUNTING” sign at a nature preserve. It made me wonder why the word “posted” appears in signs forbidding hunting, fishing, trespassing, etc. Doesn’t the fact that the sign was actually posted make the inclusion of the word at best redundant?

A: In our area of rural New England, we see endless examples of “POSTED: NO HUNTING,” “POSTED: NO TRESPASSING,” and so on. The signs are there, so obviously somebody “posted” them—why underscore the fact?

The short answer is that there’s no short answer.

If you regard a sign as a simple communications tool, the “posted” part is of course redundant. But if you regard it as a legal notice, the wording is another matter.

As you might imagine, this business of sign posting has become a thorny issue involving the rights of hunters on one side and landowners on the other. So, naturally, sign requirements vary widely from state to state.

In some states no signs are necessary, because a hunter must get permission before hunting on private property. In other states, hunting is allowed unless a sign is posted that says otherwise.

And among those states where a sign is necessary, not all require that it include the word “posted.” (It should be noted that municipalities, too, sometimes enact their own ordinances.)

Mark R. Sigmon wrote in the Duke Law Journal in 2004 that 29 states “have statutes requiring landowners to post their land to exclude hunters; the other states have statutes requiring hunters to get explicit permission from landowners before they hunt.”

In his article, “Hunting and Posting on Private Land in America,” Sigmon said that of the states requiring signs, most “set an exact number of signs that must be posted, their size, what they must say, and even their height off of the ground and their color.”

But even in states where the word “posted” isn’t required, its presence on signs seems to have become a hoary American tradition.

Perhaps a sign that shouts “POSTED” underscores the seriousness of a landowner’s intentions. But it may simply be the kind of sign the hardware and farm-supply stores tend to sell. At any rate, here’s a little etymology.

The noun “post,” meaning a support or column of timber, has been in the language since the days of Old English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was taken from the classical Latin word postis, meaning a doorpost.

When the verb “post” first entered English in the mid-1500s, it meant to cut timber into posts, the OED says. A century or so later, it came to mean “to affix (a notice, poster, etc.) to a post, or in a prominent position.”

In the 19th century, “post” began to be used more generally to mean to put up a notice. Here’s a modern citation from Joyce Carol Oates’s novel Bellefleur (1980): “All of the Bellefleur property was posted against trespassers.”

Similarly, the adjective “posted” has been used since the 19th century to mean “set up or fixed in a prominent place; displayed so as to provide information; advertised, made public.”

This adjectival usage is “chiefly” North American, the OED says. The dictionary’s first citation is from Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick (we’ve gone to the original to expand the quotation).

In searching for a leaking cask, Ishmael imagines finding deep in the hold of the Pequod a “mouldy corner-stone cask containing coins of Captain Noah, with copies of the posted placards, vainly warning the infatuated old world from the flood.”

Check out our books about the English language