The Grammarphobia Blog

The travail of travel

Q: In The American Way of Birth, Jessica Mitford writes, “It is somehow reassuring to discover that the word ‘travel’ is derived from ‘travail,’ denoting the pains of childbirth.” Does “travel” really come from “travail”? And does it have anything to do with childbirth?

A: Yes, “travel” is derived from “travail,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and it originally meant “Bodily or mental labour or toil, especially of a painful or oppressive nature; exertion; trouble; hardship; suffering.”

We got the word from the Old French travail, meaning suffering or trouble. The first published reference in the OED (spelled trauail) is from the Old Kentish Sermons (circa 1250), a collection of Old English sermons and proverbs.

And, yes, the word did once refer to the pain of childbirth. An OED citation from 1297 uses the phrase “in travail” pretty much the way we would use “in labor” today.

In spite of the word’s painful beginnings, the noun “travel” was being used to mean the act of traveling by the late 1300s. It was spelled all sorts of ways (“travall,” “trawaile,” ”trauaille,” “travale,” and so on) before “travel” became the dominant form in the 1600s.

The verb “travel” has a similar pedigree since entering English in the late 13th century. It has meant, among other things, to torment, to work, and to make a journey.

It’s interesting that a word for suffering or trouble in Old French has evolved over the years to mean work in modern French and travel or trouble in modern English. But I’m not sure what, if anything, that says about our two languages.

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