Etymology of the Day: Pal

We can use it when we’re trying to get a stranger’s attention in a friendly way. Hey, pal, though you’d want to know you left your lights on. We can also use when it we’re trying to get a stranger’s attention in a not so friendly way. Excuse me, pal, but I was in line before you. Whether chummy or charged, what’s the origin of pal?

Gumby and his pal, Pokey. Image from


The Oxford English Dictionary first attests pal around 1770. Early on, a pal referred to a “partner”…in crime. In his 1789 Life’s Painter of Variegated Characters in Public and Private Life, the colorful Englishman George Parker defined pal as a “comrade, when highwaymen rob in pairs, they say such a one was his or my pal.” 

But could Parker’s pal have been stereotyping? Pal comes from the English-Romani pal or phal, meaning “brother” or “comrade,” a variant of continental Romani pral, plal, or phral, used especially around Turkey. Romani comprises varieties of language spoken by over 4 million Roma, which many derogatorily call Gypsies. Romani is closely related to languages spoken in northern India, which is why etymologists think pal ultimately goes back to the Sanskrit bhrata, “brother.”

The Sanskrit bhrata and English brother look like pals, don’t they? That’s because they both trace back to the same Indo-European root, *bhrater-, also source of the Latin-based fraternity

Over time, pal softened to “friend”  leading to the likes of old pals by the 1880s, around the time pal begins palling around. Pen-pals, replacing pen-friend, emerges by 1920s; gal pal, by the 1930s. And palimony, while more seriously awarded to an unmarried partner since the 1970s, actually dates back to the 1920s, a humorous blend of pal and alimony for divorced couples still on good terms. In recent years, as we saw, pal has shifted in tone again, disguising aggression or sarcasm through a polite, mild, and neutral word.

What’s next for pal? Well, it probably doesn’t care where it’s going, just as long as it’s with you. Put it there, pal.

m ∫ r ∫


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