Although not as common as it once was, the phrase “beyond the pale” (meaning beyond the bounds of propriety, improper, shocking, unacceptable by societal standards, exceeding what is considered “normal”) has a rich history that I discovered only recently while researching a book set in late fifteenth century Ireland and England. Unfortunately the phrase has been misused time and again by those who think that “pale” is actually “pail” as in a pail of water. So despite its connotations with “kicking the bucket”, this phrase has a different meaning altogether.
The word “pale” has its roots in a Latin word “pallere” or “palus” (depending on the reference) which means a stake or wooden post, as in a fence post. So “beyond the pale” literally means “beyond the fence” or “outside the border”, and it was used to describe anything or anyone who is culturally different and/or holds morals and values that are different than your own, although now its looser connotations include anything shocking or unusual.
Pales have also been historically used to describe areas ruled by one government that are encircled by land governed by another, so inside a border is one country and outside the border is another, and there are a few examples that demonstrate this. These areas were not necessarily enclosed by physical barriers to separate them from surrounding areas, but the concept remains the same – one distinct entity enclosed by another.
“The Pale, Ireland”, an English settlement from the 1400s through the 1700s. The “Irish Pale” was a small area surrounding Dublin (marked in orange in the picture below) where the English government exerted direct authority. All surroundings areas were run by the Irish government.
Another English Pale would have been Calais (France), which was controlled by the English for over 200 years until the Siege of Calais in 1558. At that time, English rule over the “Pale of Calais”, came to an end, and the English lost their last territory in modern-day France.
The last and most recent pale I’ll mention here was called the “Russian Pale” or “Pale of Settlement” referring to an area within Russia where Russian Jews were required to live. This enclosure, from the 1700s until the 1900s, existed between the Baltic and Black Seas and was initiated by decrees from Catherine the Great. The government wished to keep the Jews contained and to block them from assimilating into Russian populations. The laws that created this pale were not relaxed by Czar Alexander II in 1855 only to be tightened again following a political assassination in 1881.
Later, the meaning of the phrase morphed somewhat to include the idea of a “sphere of influence”. For example, “within the pale of the nobility” or “within the pale of the Catholic church”.
So the next time you are describing someone shocking, use this phrase and think of the various pales that have existed throughout history. But whatever you do, don’t use it to mean someone just “kicked the bucket”.