A Lighter Shade of Pale (#WordUse Series)

We’ve got exciting times goin’ on here in the good ol’ US of A, with one political party making some pretty interesting claims and the opposing party reacting with outrage. (See how I did that?) My Irish immigrant husband has spent hours watching debates and newscasts and commentaries on the television. He also follows the news online, where he saw a tweet remarking that something a candidate had said was so outrageous it was “beyond the pale.”

The Irishman was surprised to hear it.

“Have you ever heard the phrase beyond the pale?” he asked. “Do you know what it means?”

Of course I do. My parents were wordies, remember? This is one of those phrases I grew up with. It means “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.” Synonyms might be: unacceptable, unseemly, improper, unsuitable, unreasonable, unforgivable, intolerable, disgraceful, deplorable, outrageous, scandalous, shocking, exceptionable, uncivilized. You might say someone was out of line. You might say it just isn’t done.

The Irishman persisted. “Yes, but do you know what it really means?”

Oh, honey. I married a Dubliner, didn’t I? (I’ve made quite a study of Irish history, aided by the magnificence and sheer number of Dublin bookstores and my husband’s willingness to indulge me in them.) Yes, I know what beyond the pale really means.

It means, put simply, anything outside Dublin. Americans do know the phrase as “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior,” but I suspect many of you may not know from whence it came.

It all starts with the dictionary (as so many things around here do). Pale is most commonly used as an adjective or a verb, but there’s an older meaning, a noun:

1 a archaic : a palisade of stakes : an enclosing barrier : paling
b obsolete : a restraining boundary : defense
2 a : a pointed stake driven into the ground in forming a palisade or fence
b : a slat fastened to a rail at top and bottom for fencing : picket
3 a : a space or field having bounds : an enclosed or limited region or place : enclosure
b : a territory or district within certain bounds or under a particular jurisdiction
4 : an area (as of conduct) or the limits (as of speech) within which one is privileged or protected especially by custom (as from censure or retaliation)
<conduct that was beyond the pale>
5 a obsolete : a vertical stripe (as on a coat)
b : a perpendicular stripe in an escutcheon

The word is Middle English, from Middle French pal (a stake), from the Latin palus. It dates from the 1300s, and is a doublet of the word pole, which has the same Latin origin. So a pale, in the Middle Ages, was a wooden stake, often sharpened on the top, meant to be driven into the ground, often to be used (with others) as a fence or a boundary. Impale, you see, also stems from this word. (As a side note, the adjective pale, while just as old a word, comes from the Latin pallidum [pale or colorless], from which we also get the word pallid.)

So what’s that “anything outside Dublin” business? It’s history. The Norman invasion in 1169 brought Ireland under the control of English kings, but as time went on and the Anglo-Normans assimilated with the Irish locals, this control waned. (The English had a lot of infighting to look after on their own island.) By the Tudor era in the 1500s the English crown really only exerted power in and around Dublin—and they’d built a fence to protect it. Really, it was just a fortified ditch. A pale.

And the language, the vernacular, reflected that: the pale was “a defence, a safeguard, a barrier, an enclosure, or a limit beyond which it was not permissible to go.”

Beyond the pale, then, was anything outside the boundary. Wikipedia says,

Within the confines of the Pale the leading gentry and merchants lived lives not too different from those of their counterparts in England, save for the constant fear of attack from the Gaelic Irish. The idea of the Pale was inseparable from the notion of a separate Anglo-Irish polity and culture. After the 17th century and especially after the Anglican Reformation and the Plantation of Ulster, the “Old English” settlers were gradually assimilated into the Irish population … The term continues to be used in contemporary Irish speech to refer to County Dublin and its commuter towns, generally critically—for example, a government department may be criticised for concentrating its resources on the Pale.

See? My husband was a little surprised to find the phrase common parlance in this country, but he’s forgotten that the phrase came here with English settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—when the Pale would have been a thing—and it stayed here.

Tweet: Beyond the pale. It means “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.”
Tweet: There’s an interesting linguistic history to the phrase beyond the pale.

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