The author of the above letter to the editor, which appeared in my local newspaper yesterday, was expressing his dismay at Donald Trump’s unconscionable attack on the late U.S. Senator John McCain. I don’t know if it was the letter writer or the editorial staff of the paper who chose to use the headline “Beyond the Pale” for the letter, but it got me wondering where that expression originated.
I’ve heard the expression “beyond the pale” used before. Multiple times, in fact. It’s used as an expression of outrage, or as a way of saying that something is unthinkable, as in, “What he did was beyond the pale.” And I’ve also heard that phrase used by many pundits over the past two years to describe the words and actions of Donald Trump.
I did a Google search to see what I could learn about the phrase’s origin. According to one site that specializes in the meanings and origins of phrases, “beyond the pale” means “unacceptable; outside agreed standards of decency.” Yup, that’s Donald Trump all right.
But I digress. The word “pale” in the phrase is an old name for a pointed piece of wood driven into the ground, which, when strung together, forms a barrier made of such stakes. Its original use was as a defense, a safeguard, an enclosure, or a limit beyond which it was not permissible to go.
The phrase “beyond the pale” dates back to the 14th century, when the part of Ireland that was under English rule was delineated by a boundary made of such stakes or fences. It was known as the English Pale. To travel outside of that boundary, beyond the pale, was to leave behind all the rules and institutions of English society, which the English modestly considered synonymous with civilization itself.
The phrase took on a negative connotation in 18th century Russia. Catherine the Great created the Pale of Settlement in Russia in 1791. This was the name given to the western border region of the country, in which Jews were allowed to live. The motivation behind this was to restrict trade between Jews and native Russians. Some Jews were allowed to live, as a concession, “beyond the pale.”
Russia enacted May Laws of 1882, after widespread anti-Jewish riots, or pogroms, had broken out in the Russian Pale the previous year. The May Laws stripped Jews of their rural landholdings and restricted them from travel outside of the pale.
My post on Beyond the Pale wouldn’t be complete, however, if I didn’t mention the Ottawa based brewery, Beyond the Pale.And there’s also Beyond the Pale, a Toronto-based Canadian world/roots fusion band.Who knew?