Every once in a while, when we're far away from…
The other night, around a crowded dinner table, an acquaintance mentioned having encountered the expression beyond the pale for the first time. “What does that even mean?” she wondered aloud. All around us, shoulders shrugged and heads shook.
Me: I know this one. Back in the olden days, a paling was a property boundary. Anywhere within the boundary was safe, and anywhere outside was unsafe.
Her (possibly more puzzled than before): But what does it mean? Now, I mean. What does it mean when someone calls something “beyond the pale”?
Ever try to explain an idiom around a crowded dinner table, with conversations flying every which way and the waitress interrupting by bringing food? I never did quite explain it to her satisfaction that night. So, home to my books and the internet, which provide more, and more specific, information about the expression than expected.
A little etymological hopscotch to start. Pale comes from the Latin palus, meaning ‘stake’, and can mean either a vertical (usually pointed) stake in a palisade, or the palisade (a fence or wall made of such stakes) itself. A palisade or pale could be a simple enclosure (as for livestock) or be used as a defensive measure.
If a place has a protective or defensive boundary, whatever is beyond that boundary must be perceived as dangerous or unfriendly, and thus unwelcome inside the boundary. It’s an intuitive leap of meaning from a physical boundary against the unwelcome to a metaphorical boundary. Can’t you just envision the expression arising among the noble and moneyed, with their tendency toward euphemism to express strong feeling and other uncomfortable subjects? I can almost hear a plummy voice saying in scandalized tones, “really, Sir Cedric, can you not restrain your son around the housemaids? His behaviour of late is quite beyond the pale.”
Colour me surprised, then, to find that many internet sources claim that the expression refers to a specific pale. The Pale, or the English Pale, say both Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary, was the part of Ireland–specifically, the area around Dublin— that was under the control of the English government in the late Middle Ages. When you ventured beyond The Pale, you left behind English rule, English law, and English protection, and put yourself at risk of attack from the unwelcoming Gaelic Irish. The same metaphorical leap of meaning seems pretty intuitive here, too.
Wikipedia notes that “Pale” was also used for various other English colonial settlements and the area of Imperial Russia where Jews were permitted to reside after the partitions of Poland pushed thousands of Jews into an unwelcoming Russia.
The Oxford English Dictionary, though, disputes this origin story and in sense 5b on the linked page says: “The theory that the origin of the phrase relates to any of several specific regions, such as the area of Ireland formerly called the Pale (see sense 4b) or the Pale of Settlement in Russia (see sense 4c), is not supported by the early historical evidence and is likely to be a later rationalization.”
That address to Sir Cedric is the sort of thing you can imagine the Dowager Countess of Grantham (or any other character played by the great Maggie Smith) saying, isn’t it?
If you haven’t been using this expression, I encourage you to start. And if you get a Maggie Smith moment from it? Well, that’s a bonus.