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Beyond the pale

Q From Jon Pearce: Any idea where beyond the pail comes from and what it means?

A Isn’t that where you go when you kick the bucket?

Seriously, it has nothing to do with containers for carrying water. It’s a common misspelling because the word that really belongs in the expression has largely gone out of use except in this one situation. The phrase is properly beyond the pale. It means an action that’s regarded as outside the limits of acceptable behaviour, one that’s objectionable or improper.

I look upon you, sir, as a man who has placed himself beyond the pale of society, by his most audacious, disgraceful, and abominable public conduct.

Mr Pott to Mr Slurk (we never learn their first names) in The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, 1837. This is a classic example of the expression but by no means the earliest. That’s more than a century older, in 1720, in the third volume of The Compleat History of the Lives, Robberies, Piracies, and Murders Committed by the Most Notorious Rogues, by a man hiding, perhaps wisely, under the pseudonym of Captain Alexander Smith.

Pale has nothing to do with the adjective for something light in colour except that both come from Latin roots. The one referring to colour originates in the Latin verb pallere, to be pale, whilst our one is from palus, a stake (also the name of the wooden post that Roman soldiers used to represent an opponent during fighting practice). Pale is an old name for a pointed piece of wood driven into the ground and — by an obvious extension — to a barrier made of such stakes, a palisade or fence. Pole is from the same source, as are impale, paling and palisade. This meaning has been around in English since the fourteenth century and by the end of that century pale had taken on various figurative senses — a defence, a safeguard, a barrier, an enclosure, or a limit beyond which it was not permissible to go. The idea of an enclosed area still exists in some English dialects.

Both Dove-like roved forth beyond the pale
To planted Myrtle-walk.

The History of Polindor and Flostella, by the Elizabethan courtier and author Sir John Harington, written sometime before 1612 but published in 1657. This uses pale in its literal sense of a boundary or enclosure. In the poem, Ortheris and his beloved risk going beyond the boundary (the pale) of their quiet park lodge with the result that Ortheris is attacked by five armed horsemen. Harrington is best remembered now for his Metamorphosis of Ajax (this last word being a pun on a jakes, meaning a privy) of 1596, a scatological and satirical work that contains the first description of a water closet, more than 200 years before anybody built one.

In particular, the term was used to describe various defended enclosures of territory inside other countries. For example, the English pale in France in the fourteenth century was the territory of Calais, the last English possession in that country. The best-known example is the Russian Pale, between 1791 and the Revolution of 1917, which were specified provinces and districts within which Russian Jews were required to live.

Another famous one is the Pale in Ireland, the part of the country which England directly controlled — it varied from time to time, but was an area of several counties centred on Dublin. The first mention of the Irish Pale is in a document of 1446–7. Though there was an attempt later in the century to enclose the Pale by a bank and ditch (which was never completed), there never was a literal fence around it. The expression has often been claimed to originate in one or other of these pales, most often the Irish one, but the earliest appearance of 1720 for beyond the pale is very late if it’s linked to the Irish one and much too early for the Russian one.

The earliest figurative sense that’s linked to the idiom was of a sphere of activity or interest, a branch of study or a body of knowledge, which comes from the same idea of an enclosed or contained area; we use field in much the same way. This turned up first in 1483 in one of the earliest printed books in English, The Golden Legende, a translation by William Caxton of a French work. This is a much later example:

By its conversion England was first brought, not only within the pale of the Christian Church, but within the pale of the general political society of Europe.

The History of the Norman Conquest, by Ernest A Freeman, 1867.

Our sense seems part to have grown out of this, since people who exist outside such a conceptual pale are not our kind and do not share our values, beliefs or customs.

Page created 8 Feb. 2003
Last updated 20 Nov. 2010

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Last modified: 20 November 2010.