The travails of “travel”

Long security lines have been beleaguering travelers across America’s airports, making the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) scramble to unlace its shoes, take out its laptop, and bin its personal affects. Travel can be quite the travail – all too painfully true, if we give the word travel an etymological screening.


Originally, travel was travail. They were the same word, both referring to “extremely hard labor” and “toil.” Travail is documented in the mid-13th century, wrought from the French travail, “suffering” or “painful effort.” (In English, travail was applied to childbirth by the end of the 1200s.) It doesn’t get any easier from here, though.

Romance-language philologists think French’s travail develops from the Late Latin *trepālium, literally “an instrument with three stakes.” The first part of this compound features trēs (“three”), the second part pālus (“stake”), which we also see in the pale of beyond the pale.  This trepālium may have been some sort of a torture device, inflicting its misery three stakes at a time. Extreme exertion can feel like torture, as the sense of trepālium apparently so developed.

Walter Skeat suggests an alternative origin for travail, though: the Latin *travāre, “to make or build with beams, pen, shackle, put an obstacle in one’s way, and so cause embarrassment and trouble,” as he glosses it. He cites a similar sense development in embarrass. Skeat then traces *travāre in Latin’s trabes, a “beam” or “piece of timber,” which, incidentally, he anchors in the very Indo-European root that ultimately yields the word torture.

Over the course of the 14th century, travail began to refer to going on a journey, which was a back-breaking undertaking in the Middle Ages. Travail changed its shape, form, and sense to arrive at the travel we know today – though, when it comes to modern airplane travel, it can feel like nothing has changed at all.

I think we now know why Frost really took the road less travelled by: He had TSA PreCheck. And that can make all the difference.

m ∫ r ∫



One thought on “The travails of “travel”

  1. Given all the hoops that travellers must now jump through, travel has lost its pleasure and has indeed become a travail.


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