Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Beyond the Pale

For my new job, I took a one day seminar to be certified as some sort of food safety person. During his self-introduction, the instructor mentioned that he had minored in history and developed a love of European History in general and Russian History in particular. Now devoted readers of the blog, and you must be devoted to still be checking in after all these months, will remember that Isaac Deutscher's Trotsky trilogy was one of the memorable reading events of my youth. So, as I turned in my test (quick--within what temperature range is the "danger zone" for perishable meat?) I asked if he had read the Deutscher trilogy, he gave me a look which, while slightly ambiguous, could easily have been interpreted as uncomprehending. He mumbled something about his father having them and that he had read part of the first volume. He held up his Golf Digest and said, "This is about all I read nowadays." It could be that Bolshevism is frowned upon in corporate life, or maybe I had crossed his comfort line of personal contact or perhaps, to paraphrase Benjamin Braddock, "I guess, he just lost interest over the years."
Three days later I was at my local library's used book sale and I was delighted to find "Trotsky, The Eternal Revolutionary," by Dmitri Volkogonov. While reading the book I came across the fact that Trotsky was born in a region along Russia's border with Poland, called "The Pale". Immediately the phrase, 'beyond the pale' came to mind and I wondered if that's from whence the phrase comes. Maybe, I guessed, it's a Jewish phrase referring to a place outside the permitted, or the familiar.
Well it turns out the word pale comes from the latin palus which means 'stake'.
A pale is an old name for a pointed stake driven into the ground and — by an obvious-enough extension — to a barrier made of such stakes, a fence (our modern word pole is from the same source, as are impale and paling). This meaning has been around in English since the fourteenth century. By 1400 it had taken on various figurative senses — a defence, a safeguard, a barrier, an enclosure, or a limit beyond which it was not permissible to go.
Further reading of the above link reveals that there was also an English Pale in Calais and one in Ireland.
Now that I know what it means, it pleases me to consider it in a much more positive light; nothing wrong with hopping the fence of our particular ghetto.

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