Beyond the pale
If your behaviour is described as being beyond the pale, it is unacceptable and beyond the accepted norms of decency. The pale in question is a noun, not the adjective to denote a whitish colour, and means a stake or pointed piece of wood. It comes via the Middle French word, pal, from the Latin palus. But why compare behaviour to a stake?
The answer becomes clearer when you realise that pale in English had another meaning, an area enclosed by a fence or a load of pales and, by extension, aa distinct area subject to a particular jurisdiction. Until its imperialistic expansion from the 17th century onwards England had very little in the way of overseas territories, particularly after the Hundred Years’ War, the territory of Calais, which it hung on to from 1337 until 1453, and Ireland.
The Irish had always been a thorn in the English side and only four counties, those of Louth, Meath, Dublin, and Kildare, remained loyal(ish) to the king. The king’s turf was marked by a wooden turf, later turned into a more impressive ten-foot-deep ditch surrounded by eight-feet banks and thorny bushes. Those who lived inside the perimeter of the ditch were under the protection of the English and abided by their laws and customs. Those outside the ditch were outside the boundaries of what was considered then to be civilised society.
Perhaps the most infamous pale was the Pale of Settlement established by Catherine the Great which lasted between 1791 and 1917 and denoted areas of Russia and Russian-occupied Poland within which Jews were required to live. Sometimes Jews were allowed to live beyond the pale.
It was not until the 17th century that the term began to be used figuratively to mean a sphere of influence or activity. The time lag between the English pales and its usage makes it difficult to be certain that there was a direct connection or whether it was just an etymologist’s retro-fit. It is in this figurative sense that Shakespeare used it in The Winter’s Tale from around 1610 in describing the onset of spring; “for the red blood raigns in the winter’s pale”. Sir Walter Scott extended the Bard’s concept of the term pale to denote a boundary of behaviour and brought back the sense of a physical boundary by imagining someone leaping over it. In The Search after Happiness, a poem from 1817, he wrote; “Italian license loves to leap the pale”.
Beyond the pale seems to have first appeared in a lyric poem entitled The History of Polindor and Flostella by John Harington, published in 1657. Ortheris has retired to the country for some peace and quiet but soon falls in love and “both Dove-like roved forth beyond the pale to planted Myrtle-Walk”. The expression was slow to take off and there are only a few citations, one of the earlier one being as late as November 6, 1809 in a poem in the Belfast Commercial Chronicle, rather sensationally entitled Stanzas, on hearing a wretch exclaim there is no God; The opening stanza concludes with the following lines, “yet specious pleas the wretched being frames,/ beyond the pale where common sense is found”.
When the phrase was used, it more usually came with a form of explanation or limitation of the pale. A classic example is to be found in the rather splendid A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts and Cheats of Both Sexes, compiled by Captain Alexander Smith and published in 1719. In describing Acteon, the good Captain wrote, “while he suffered his eye to rove at pleasure and beyond the pale of expedience”.
Modern usage has reverted to Harington’s formulation. Some users seem oblivious to its origin spelling pale as pail as in a bucket. Now that really is beyond the pale.