The Grammarphobia Blog

Beyond the pale

Q: I’ve seen many examples of “beyond the pail” on the Internet. In fact, I googled the phrase and got many thousands of hits. I’d always thought the phrase was “beyond the pale,” a reference to the Russian Jewish ghetto.

A: You’re right that the correct phrase is “beyond the pale.” You’re also right that “beyond the pail” shows up a lot on the Internet.

However, many of the Google hits are from punsters or people pointing out the error.

The language writer Michael Quinion has a great quip about this on his website World Wide Words. When asked about the meaning of “beyond the pail,” he joked, “Isn’t that where you go when you kick the bucket?”

As for “beyond the pale,” it refers to something that’s improper or exceeds the limits of acceptability.

The other phrase you refer to, about the isolation of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, is the “Pale of Settlement.”

But the two expressions have little to do with one another, beyond their common use of the noun “pale” in the sense of a boundary or a limit.

“Beyond the pale” isn’t a reference to the other phrase, since it’s 170 years older. It was first recorded in 1720, while the first reference to the Pale of Settlement was recorded in 1890, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

We briefly discussed these expressions on our blog five years ago, but they’re worth another look.

When the noun “pale” was first recorded in the 1300s, it referred to a wooden stake meant to be driven into the ground.

At that time, “pale” was a doublet—that is, an etymological twin—of the much earlier word “pole,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Both “pale” and “pole” once had the same meaning and came from the same source, the Latin word palus.

As the OED explains, in classical Latin a palus was a stake or a “wooden post used by Roman soldiers to represent an opponent during fighting practice.”

In post-classical Latin, palus also meant a palisade (originally a fence or enclosure made with wooden stakes), or a stripe (as in heraldry).

The noun “pale” was first recorded in writing in the mid-14th century. Its original meaning, the OED says, was a stake or “a pointed piece of wood intended to be driven into the ground, esp. as used with others to form a fence.”

In the late 14th century, “pale” was also used to mean the fence itself.

In the following century, “pale” acquired a couple of new meanings.

It could be “an area enclosed by a fence,” or “any enclosed place,” to quote the OED. It could also mean “a district or territory within determined bounds, or subject to a particular jurisdiction.”

Here’s where our two expressions come in. “Beyond the pale” came first, as we said, dating from the early 18th century.

Originally the phrase was followed by “of” and it meant “outside or beyond the bounds of” something. For example, here are the OED’s three earliest citations:

“Acteon … suffer’d his Eye to rove at Pleasure, and beyond the Pale of Expedience.” (From Alexander Smith’s A Compleat History of Rogues, 1720.)

“Nature is thus wise in our construction, that, when we would be blessed beyond the pale of reason, we are blessed imperfectly.” (From Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of the World, 1773.)

“Without one overt act of hostility … he contrived to impress me momently with the conviction that I was put beyond the pale of his favour.” (From Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, 1847).

But late in the 19th century the prepositional phrase fell away, according to Oxford, and “beyond the pale” was used by itself to mean “outside the limits of acceptable behaviour; unacceptable or improper.”

That’s how it’s been used ever since, as in these two OED citations:

“Unknown, doubtful Americans, neither rich nor highly-placed are beyond the pale.” (From the 1885 novel At Bay, written by “Mrs. Alexander,” the pen name of Annie Hector.)

“If you pinched a penny of his pay you passed beyond the pale, you became an unmentionable.” (From a 1928 issue of Public Opinion.)

Now for our other “pale” expression. As we mentioned above, the use of “pale” to describe a region or territory subject to a certain control or jurisdiction dates from the mid-1400s.

When first used, the reference was to English jurisdiction, and over the centuries “the pale” (sometimes capitalized) has been used to refer to areas of Ireland, Scotland, and France (that is, the territory of Calais) when they were under England’s control.

But this sense of “pale” is perhaps most familiar in the phrase “Pale of Settlement,” which the OED says is modeled after the Russian certa osedlosti (literally, “boundary of settlement”).

Oxford defines the phrase as “a set of specified provinces and districts within which Jews in Russia and Russian-occupied Poland were required to reside between 1791 and 1917.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the use of the phrase in writing comes from Russia and the Jews: A Brief Sketch of Russian History and the Condition of Its Jewish Subjects (1890), written by an author identified as “A. Reader”:

“The Jews … as soon as the contract was completed … had to return within the ‘pale’ of settlement.”

This more contemporary example is from the Slavic and East European Journal (1999): “Deeply depressed by Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement, Gershenzon struggled to escape the ‘darkness’ and reach the light.”

As for the relationship between the two expressions, the OED has this to say:

“The theory that the origin of the phrase [‘beyond the pale’] relates to any of several specific regions, such as the area of Ireland formerly called the Pale … or the Pale of Settlement in Russia … is not supported by the early historical evidence and is likely to be a later rationalization.”

By the way, the adjective “pale,” dating from the early 1300s, has nothing to do with the noun. It comes from another source altogether, the classical Latin pallidum (pale or colorless), from which we also get the word “pallid.”

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