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TWTS: A glimpse "beyond the pale"

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When something is “beyond the pale,” it has crossed the line that delineates what’s acceptable, or perhaps “crossed the fence” is a better way to put it.

Our listener Liz Lippow has had this phrase on her mind lately.

“The war between Russia and Ukraine renewed my interest in the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire… But in English, the use of the word ‘pale’ to mean ‘area’ or ‘district’ doesn’t seem to be in common usage anymore. What is the history of this term? Is it related to the phrase ‘beyond the pale’?

“Pale” has a long history, beginning in the 14th century in English. In its earliest meaning, it referred to a piece of wood that was intended to be driven into the ground. In other words, a “pale” was a stake, typically one that could be used to build a fence. It could also refer to the fence itself, so you could have a pale made of individual pales.

At this point the verb “impale” might be piercing your thoughts. That would make sense, because the earliest meanings of the verb “impale” were “to enclose an area with stakes or pales” or “to fence in.”

In the 15th century, “pale” comes to refer to an area enclosed by a fence or any enclosed place. This is where things like the Pale of Settlement came from. In this context, “pale” refers to a district or territory with distinct boundaries.

As Liz mentioned in her question, the Pale of Settlement was a set of provinces and districts within the western region of the Russian Empire where permanent residency of Jews was generally allowed. Beyond this area Jewish residency was generally forbidden, permanent or otherwise. Other examples of pales include the English pales of Ireland and France in the Middle Ages.

This form of “pale” is related to “beyond the pale.” Here, “pale” is being used abstractly to refer to a particular domain. You can find examples of this context throughout history including things like “the pale of the political community” or “the pale of the Christian Church.”

In “beyond the pale” we have the idea that something is outside the limits of what’s been fenced in and defined as acceptable. It can be used in a specific context such as “beyond the pale of expedience” or “beyond the pale of her favor,” but you can also talk about something being simply “beyond the pale.”

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.