If you have been listening to the news at all, you’ve heard “beyond the pale,” many times this summer. It means beyond the limits of accepted behavior, or disgraceful, even shocking.
One story even spelled it “pail,” but the phrase has nothing to do with buckets. Not even buckets of outrage.
A pale is a stick, often sharp on top. We don’t use the word a lot anymore, but you have heard it in impale, as you would a vampire. In some regions a picket fence is called a paling fence, for the same reasons. Now we are getting closer to the origin.
Ancient cities had walls around them, and then farther away, a fence of tall pointed sticks, or pales. The city walls were protected by warriors, and guards patrolled out outer regions. If the pale was breached, or broken through, a call went out as early warning.
If you lived in the city and wanted to take a walk, you were safe up to the pale. But if you ventured outside the borders, you were no longer safe. You had gone beyond the pale.
Pales were enforced in Ireland (The Pale of Dublin) and France (The Pale of Calais) and were used as political tools. Catherine the Great created the Pale of Russia as a Western border region and confined the Jews to live there in 1791. No Jew could cross the pale and trade with native Russians. And Russians were warned not to go beyond the pale, because there was danger there.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer and business writing trainer who also writes poetry. She loves words and their histories.