Beyond the Pale. Outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior.
Like many fellow word nerds, I try to be careful with my language, particularly when it comes to potentially offensive language that I might have unknowingly picked up during a less than linguistically woke childhood. For example, as I wrote the preceding sentence I started wondering whether I should say “kindred” instead of “fellow” — might the latter be perceived as sexist even though it isn’t etymologically gendered?
Anyway, for reasons already forgotten, I recently learned that for more than 100 years there was a region in Imperial Russia called “The Pale” where permanent residency of Jews was allowed (and beyond which even temporary residency was forbidden). And then, as often happens with such things, I heard myself using the phrase “beyond the pale” and started wondering: could that phrase be related to this religious segregation? Or even skin color?
Thankfully “beyond the pale” is of a wholly different, interesting and thankfully untroubling origin.
First, let’s clear up what some Googling tells me is a common confusion: the “pale” in this phrase is properly spelled P-A-L-E not P-A-I-L, despite Michael Quinion’s humorous explanation justifying the latter through an allusion to “kicking the bucket,” or my own musing on some kind of further warning from the old nursery rhyme “Jack and Jill.”
But though the correct spelling is the same as the word meaning lack of color (AKA wan, anemic or washed out), the pale in “beyond the pale” comes from a different Latin root. Where the pale related to color derives from the Latin pallidus (from which we derive words such as pallid and pallor), this pale comes from the Latin palus, meaning a stake or wooden post, as does its much more common twin pole. As a noun, the word pale isn’t often seen today outside of the phrase “beyond the pale,” though other related words have survived such as impale and palisade (a fence of pales or stakes).
The first recorded use of the phrase “beyond the pale” makes use of this literal use of pale as a barrier or enclosure. In John Harington’s 1657 poem “The History of Polindor & Flostella” he writes that the two eponymous characters
Both Dove-like roved forth beyond the pale
To planted Myrtle-walk
The literal use of pale as an enclosure led to its use to refer to a controlled territory, a pale writ large, such as the Irish (or English) Pale, the area of Ireland directly under the control of the English government in the late Middle Ages, the Pale of Calais, a region of France controlled by the English monarchy in the 13–1500s, and the aforementioned Russian Pale that was dissolved by the October Revolution and the fall of the Russian empire.
But much like fence, which I’ve discussed before, the figurative potential of pale became apparent to writers, ultimately usurping its literal origins.
In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, first published in 1623, Autolycus sings of Spring replacing Winter:
When daffodils begin to peer,
With heigh! the doxy over the dale,
Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year;
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.
By 1720, the literal phrase we still use today is first recorded. In Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, & Cheats of Both Sexes, he writes
These Follies are prettily shadowed in the Sports of Acteon, who while he suffered his eye to rove at pleasure, and beyond the Pale of Expedience, his Hounds, even his own Affections, seiz’d him, tore him, and prov’d his utter Destruction.
In the earliest figurative uses, the authors usually specified the region bounded by the Pale. In Smith’s telling, Acteon went beyond the “Pale of Expedience,” just as nearly 125 years later Charlotte Brontë would write in Jane Eyre how the cold St. John Rivers:
Without one overt act of hostility, one upbraiding word, [he] contrived to impress me momently with the conviction that I was put beyond the pale of his favour.
Today the phrase “beyond the pale” is, despite its often unknown origins, so common as to be almost a cliche. But some of our greatest authors and stylists haven’t shied away from using it many times in their work, from Hunter S. Thompson in his gonzo journalism to the fiery, elegant novelist and essayist Zadie Smith. Though fitting, most of these uses are stylistically unremarkable. But occasionally one stands out.
Henry Miller, no stranger to venturing beyond the pale of conventional morality, writes—in his Bohemian memoir Sexus—of the ghetto of New York:
The rest of New York is an abstraction; it is cold, geometrical, rigid as rigor mortis and, I might as well add, insane—if one can only stand apart and look at it undauntedly. Only in the beehive can one find the human touch, find that city of sights, sounds, smells which one hunts for in vain beyond the margins of the ghetto. To live outside the pale is to wither and die. Beyond the pale there are only dressed-up cadavers. They are wound up each day, like alarm clocks. They perform like seal; they die like box office receipts.
William Trevor, who recently jumped to the top of my list of favorite short fictioneers, clearly understood the history of the phrase when he used it as not only the title of one of his finest short stories, but chose that story for the title of the collection containing it.
In “Beyond the Pale” Trevor wrings every last bit out of the potential cliche by intertwining its literal form in the shape of the old Irish Pale with a mini contemporary version in a very English hotel nestled on the Irish coast. There tension between the Strafes and the Malseeds (those names are almost too on-point) builds, subtly feverish, into a maelstrom of colonialism, terrorism and death, real and imagined.
As Mr. Strafe observes:
‘All I am saying, Mr Malseed, is that we should root our heads out of the sand and wonder about two people who are beyond the pale.’
And continues later, desperate to maintain his emotional cocoon despite the deep irony of doing so in Ireland:
We love the lilt of your racy history, we love your earls and heroes. Yet we made a sensible pale here once, as civilized people create a garden, pretty as a picture.
In Trevor’s story, the Strafes and the Malseeds learn the hard way that pales are like fences…perhaps it’s not beyond the pale to, as Robert Frost advises in “Mending Wall,” “ask to know” both what we are walling in and what we are walling out before we work so hard at building or rebuilding them.