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 ∫


Beyond the etymological “pale”

Today, my wife and I are bidding farewell to Southern California to greet our new home: Dublin, Ireland. We’ll actually be staying in Oxford, England first until the Irish government finishes processing our work visas.

(Nope, it’s not the sun, I’m sure you’re wondering: I’m going to miss fish tacos the most. And family, of course.)

So, to mark the occasion, I wanted to take a break from my regular newsy musings to look into the history of a word long associated with my new home – and really only surviving the expression beyond the pale.


In the English of the late 1300s, a pale was a “stake,” the wooden sort driven into the ground – or impaled into Dracula’s heart. Stakes can make a “fence,” a fence can mark a “boundary,” and a boundary can demarcate a “territory,” as pale all came to name.

Historically, England controlled a number of regions known as the English pale. The earliest pale in the record encompassed modern-day Calais, France; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates this to the 1450s. About a century later, the English pale also included southern Scotland – and, most notoriously, the greater Dublin, Ireland area. This territory became known simply as the Pale. (Imperial Russia later had a Pale, too, which confined where Jews could live.)

Many claim beyond the pale referred to the ‘wild’ regions outside of English jurisdiction in Ireland, hence the expression’s meaning of “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.” The OED, however, does not actually date the phrase – first attested in “beyond the pale of expedience” – until 1720. This is significantly later than the pale’s Irish reference, making this origin story a rather contemptuous bit of folk etymology.

So, beyond the pale is metaphorical – and has been. In the 1480s, Caxton, who brought the printing press to England, used pale in translation for a professional “domain” or “field.” (Caxton was referencing monks and abbots, it so happens.) We might think of beyond the pale as, originally, “out of one’s area of expertise.”

English ultimately drove pale into its ground from the Latin pālus, a “stake.” The ancient Romans also used a pālus as a wooden sword to practice fighting – and, imitating an enemy soldier, as a post in the ground to practice their fighting on. English derives impale, palisade, and pole from the root. Travail and travel –  appropriately enough, at least for the latter, so we’re hoping – are also related, but those origins are beyond the pale of this post.

Pale, as in pale skin, is not related, though my own complexion will soon lose much of its Southern California sunburn, thankfully, in its new climes.

Now, etymologists think Latin’s pālus is ultimately formed from the verb pangere, “to fix,” as one fixes a pale into the ground. Incredibly, this verb also yields peace, rooted in the sense of a pact fastening two parties together.

“Fastened together”: that, I think, aptly describes my wife and me as we venture into our new pales, so to speak, in a country whose rich linguistic traditions will certainly inspire many a Mashed Radish post ahead.

m ∫ r ∫