The Grammarphobia Blog

Inside the pale

Q: What does the word “pale” mean and where does it come from in expressions like “Pale of Settlement” (the Jewish ghettos in Europe) and “beyond the pale”?

A: The noun “pale” comes from the Latin palus (“stake”), from which we also get the words “pole” and “palisade.” (The adjective “pale,” meaning wan or weak in color, comes from a different source.)

The noun first appeared in English in the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and it literally meant a wooden stake or picket driven into the ground.

Originally it was used to refer to a fence or boundary (that is, “palings”), but in the 1400s it was used for a district or territory within certain bounds and subject to a certain jurisdiction.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, for instance, the parts of Ireland under English jurisdiction were called “the Pale.” And “the Pale” was also used (much after the fact) to refer to the French territory of Calais under English jurisdiction.

Beginning in the late 19th century, the term “Pale of Settlement” was used to refer to areas where Jews were required to live in Russia and Russian-occupied Poland between 1791 and 1917.

From the 15th century onward, “pale” was also used figuratively. For example, someone might be said to be “within the pale of the Church” or “outside the pale of society.”

The expression “beyond the pale,” first recorded in 1720, meant outside the bounds of accepted mores or behavior.

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