meaning and origin of the phrase ‘beyond the pale’




outside the limits of social convention




The primary meanings of the noun pale are a wooden stake or post used with others to form a fence and a wooden fence made of stakes driven into the ground.

This word appeared in the late 14th century and is from Anglo-Norman and Middle French pal, meaning a stakea palisadea space enclosed by stakes, and its etymon, the classical Latin noun palus, denoting a stake and a wooden post used by Roman soldiers to represent an opponent during fighting practice.

The Latin word is from a base which is the origin of Latin pax/pac-peacepangereto fix, fastenpaciscereto agree (cf. English pact, from pactumsomething agreed), and Greek πηγνύναι (= pegnunai), to fix, make solid; the original sense of the base was probably to make fast or firm.

The English noun pale came to also denote an area enclosed by a fence, hence any enclosed place and a district or territory within determined bounds or subject to a particular jurisdiction. In particular, the term the English pale denoted:

– the territory of Calais, in France, an area of English jurisdiction and colonisation from 1347 to 1558; it was the only continental possession retained by England at the end of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453);

– the area of Ireland under English jurisdiction; it varied in extent at different times between the late 12th and 16th centuries, but included parts of modern Dublin, Louth, Meath, and Kildare.

And the Pale, more fully the Pale of Settlement, after Russian čerta osedlosti, literally boundary of settlement, was 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 word pale also came to be used figuratively to mean a sphere of activity, influence, knowledge, etc.. In The Winter’s Tale (around 1610), the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) makes Autolycus sing the following:

(Folio 1, 1623)
When Daffadils begin to peere,
With heigh the Doxy ouer the dale,
Why then comes in the sweet o’the yeere,
For the red blood raigns in y [= the] winters pale.
The white sheete bleaching on the hedge,
With hey the sweet birds, O how they sing.

Another figurative meaning is a conceptual boundary, and to leap (also breakthe pale means to go beyond accepted boundsThe Search after Happiness; or The quest of Sultaun Solimaun (1817), by the Scottish novelist and poet Walter Scott (1771-1832), thus begins:

O, for a glance of that gay Muse’s eye,
That lighten’d on Bandello’s laughing tale,
And twinkled with a lustre shrewd and sly,
When Giam Battista bade her vision hail!
Yet fear not, ladies, the naïve detail
Given by the natives of that land canorous;
Italian license loves to leap the pale,
We Britons have the fear of shame before us,
And, if not wise in mirth, at least must be decorous.

Figuratively therefore, beyond the pale of means beyond the bounds of, and the later beyond the paleoutside the limits of acceptable behaviour. No historical evidence supports the theories that the origin of the phrase relates to a specific region, such as the area of Ireland under English jurisdiction; these theories are probably later rationalisations.

The expression beyond the pale of is first recorded at the end of the preface to the third volume of A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats of Both Sexes (1719 edition), written under the pseudonym of Captain Alexander Smith (floruit 1714-26):

(2002 reprint)
A loose will fulfilled, is the way to work our sorrows; for besides this folly in beginning wrong, the greatest danger is in continuance, when like a bowl running down a hill, he is ever most violent when he grows nearest his centre and period of his aim. These follies are prettily shadowed in the sports of Acteon*, who, while he suffered his eye to rove at pleasure and beyond the pale of expedience, his hounds, even his own affections, seized him, tore him, and proved his utter destruction. Therefore, let it be (by reading the misfortunes of these unhappy wretches here) your vigilance to curb your beginning desires, that they may not wander beyond moderation. If your own will be a blind conductor, good precepts, to an ingenuous nature, are bits that restrain but never hurt.

(* In Greek mythology, Acteon was a hunter who, because he accidentally saw Artemis bathing, was changed by her into a stag and killed by his own hounds.)

I have discovered a use of beyond the pale not followed by of and a complement which predates the earliest attestation by some 80 years. It is in a poem published in the Belfast Commercial Chronicle (Ireland) of Monday 6th November 1809:


“THERE is no God,” the blasphemer exclaims—
I freeze with horror at the very sound;
Yet specious pleas the wretched being frames,
Beyond the pale where common sense is found.

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