Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Beyond the pale

    "One born outside of the city wall of Dublin. The large encircling wall was called the pale, hence the origin of the term. Also a term indicating one who is acting in an unreasonable fashion, (in Ireland reason is restricted to within Dublin, but thats a myth :p)

    Another term with slightly more derogatory connotations is Culchie, but if you ask them they would tell you that you had been talking to some Jackeen and to pay no heed."

    siren.beyong the pale,, (July 2000).

There was some serious research that went on in order to understand the amusing anecdote siren alludes to. A best guess from some lay readers might be that the phrase describes something that is `out of the ordinary' and that would be pretty close. The adjective pale meaning pallid or wan dates from the early 14th century, however it is pale as a noun that this phrase refers to from a couple of centuries earlier. Derived from Latin palus meaning stake, the Latin root lives on in English words such as impale. A pale is a wooden stake or a fence made from these wooden stakes. To enclose with pales means to fence in.

During the 15th and 16th centuries the dominions of the English in Ireland, Scotland, and France gave rise to the "boundary" sense of pale designating a particular geographical region with clear limits. Hence, beyond the pale referred to any area outside this controlled province. Lands beyond these `English Pales' were considered uncivilized, and populated by barbarians. To journey outside of that boundary, beyond the pale, was to leave behind all the rules and institutions of English society and people looking to escape British domination were said to leap the pale when they passed the area's boundaries.

Over time, pale developed an additional metaphorical sense denoting the confines within which one is privileged or sheltered; as from censure. So, to be beyond the pale in this manner was to be outside the limits of protections. Today, the phrase is most frequently used to describe behavior regarded as appalling or coarse, as in:

    "He's out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct. And he is still in the field commanding troops."
    - General Corman, Apocalypse Now, 1979.

"Beyond the pale," meaning to be outside the bounds of propriety or good taste, can be linked back to ancient England, armies and things like that. Writers enjoy the use of figurative speech to get at complex ideas. Oftentimes they are created to by-pass the language that developed in more constrained circles. Many today use the phrase 'beyond the pale' without knowing that the 'pale' was the area that encircled Dublin under English jurisdiction during the colonization of Ireland. Some etymologists say the seeds for the metaphor for the limit between what is legitimate and what is indecent can be found in one of William Shakespeare's earliest historical plays Henry VI. At this moment in the drama the hero of the tale, Talbot finds himself trapped; not literally trapped in this case since the French Dauphin's army is just approaching, he has not yet had enough time to set up fortifications against a counter-siege:


Talbot is likely implying that he is in a closed space even though it is without walls. It feels as if he and his men are trapped like deer. In heraldry a pale is a broad perpendicular stripe on an armament as well and Shakespeare plays on both senses of the word. Talbot as a general of the English troops in France is so feared by the French that, when he is imprisoned, archers watch him even while he sleeps. After being released, he defeats the French several more times, until he is trapped at Bordeaux, where he and his son are slain. Fighting for the honor of king and country, Talbot symbolizes a dying breed of noble and gallant soldiers. When he falls, the last of tradition of valiant knights whose sole desire is to fight for the glory of their homeland passes figuratively beyond the pale of English chivalry.

The English pale in 14th century France was the territory of Calais, the last English possession in that country. The most recent example of pales with respect to certain districts and provinces was the Pale of Settlement. it was an obligatory requirement for Russian Jews to reside in pales from 1791 up until the Revolution in 1917. This institution is a translation of chertá osédlosti meaning "pale (boundary) of settlement".

Another famous one is the Pale in Ireland established after England's invasion of the country in 1172. Referred to in the introductory citation, it was that part of the country over which England had express authority. It changed from time to time, but was an area of numerous counties centered on Dublin. The first mention of the Irish Pale was in a document dated around 1446. Though there was an effort later in the century to surround the Pale by a bank and ditch, it was never finished and "there never was a literal fence around it" says one source.

Modern figurative phrases analogous to the idea of being beyond the pale would be off-the-wall, outside the bounds of morality, good behavior or judgment; as in unacceptable; outside agreed standards of decency, in bad taste. Indecorous would be a good synonym as are unseemly, improper, indelicate, crude, vulgar, tasteless, rude, discourteous, impolite, gross,boorish, churlish, uncouth, barbaric, barbarous, unrefined, and unpolished. The earliest known example of the idiom use as a metaphor appeared in A Legend of Montrose by Sir Walter Scott published 1819:

    So much had been written and said on either side concerning the form of church government, that it had become a matter of infinitely more consequence in the eyes of the multitude than the doctrines of that gospel which both churches had embraced. The Prelatists and Presbyterians of the more violent kind became as illiberal as the Papists, and would scarcely allow the possibility of salvation beyond the pale of their respective churches.
A model illustration by Charles Dickens dated 1837 can be found in his novel The Pickwick Papers:
"I look upon you, sir, as a man who has placed himself beyond the pale of society, by his most audacious, disgraceful, and abominable public conduct."

Quite a passage of time occurs between Shakespeare's and Scott's use of the phrase. One expert from World Wide Words explains that the expression may have been used earlier than Sir Walter Scott, "but it surely doesn't date back to the period of the Irish Pale, or anywhere near. It is often said that it does come directly from that political enclosure, but the three-century gap renders that very doubtful indeed. The idea behind it is definitely the same, though."


Alright, Demeaning Demeanor, A Little Latin Goes a Long Way, A Nice Question, Is OK Alright? and Beyond the Pale.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer © 1997 by The Christine Ammer 1992

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The Phrase Finder

Take Our Word For It

World Wide Words


Monday, April 18, 2005

All that glitters is not gold

The saying all that glitters is not gold means that simply because something may appear priceless, pleasing or pretty, it's no sign that without a doubt it will be worth having once its true nature has been discovered. In other words don't rely on the superficial. The proverb has been around a long time in a mixture of forms; akin to the Latin: Non omne quod nitet aurum est or `Not all that shines is gold.'

Some experts think that it was Aesop and his fables written around 600 BCE that probablly inspired this idea with his two moral tales, The Hen and the Golden Eggs and The Miser. There is one version close to the current wording that appeared around 1175. The 12th century French theologian Alain de Lisle penned the proverbial phrase from Parabolae, a book of poems sometime around 1280 CE with"Non teneas aurum totum quod splendet ut aurum" meaning, "Do not hold everything as gold which shines like gold." Since then it has been around in a variety of forms. Around 1300 Freire Cordelier wrote "Que tout n'est pas or c'on voit luire" or "Everything is not gold that one sees shining." Near the end of the century Chaucer's Canterbury Tales translated the saying into English:

"But all thing which that schyneth as the gold
Ne is no gold, as I have herd it told."

And again:

"Hyt is not al golde that glareth."

John Lydgate circa 1430 wrote, "All is not golde that outward shewith bright" and by 1589 Edmund Spenser noted, "Gold all is not that doth golden seem." Both Barnabe Googe in 1563 and Shakespeare in 1596 used "All that glisters is not gold" in their verse and even though the original expression uses glisters is not gold," today many writers replace the archaic verb with the more readily understandable glitter since both allude to the same thing.

It was clearly Shakespeare who adapted the idea best about a showy article that is not necessarily valuable in play The Merchant of Venice. He cleverly incorporates the moral of the expression in the comedy/drama with Antonio the wealthy merchant and his lovelorn daughter Portia. The beautiful and wealthy young woman complains about the poor qualities of prospective husbands so a lottery is established to choose one for her. Antonio will pick her husband-to-be by way of three caskets, one gold, one silver and one lead. Any gentlemen callers are required to select one of the three caskets. The choice of casket determines his value to Portia; clearly this set up makes certain that only the right man for Portia will marry his daughter. The one who picks the casket with Portia's picture wins her hand in marriage. One of the suitors is the Prince of Morocco who is brought into a room to undergo the three casket challenge, reading the inscriptions on all of them:
Gold reads: "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire" (2.7.5).
The silver casket has, "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves." (2.7.7).
Finally, the dull lead casket bears the inscription, "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath." (2.7.9).

Portia informs the Prince that the right casket, or the one that will allow him to marry her, holds a small picture of her likeness. Reading over the inscriptions a second time, the Prince makes up his mind that lead is too menacing and not worth a risk of any kind. He also rejects the silver, which he feels is too simple a metal to hold such a striking woman as Portia. In the end the Prince chooses gold. Portia passes him the key, and he opens the casket to expose a golden skull that holds a scroll with a verse written on it:


The verse points out that he made his choice based on self-gratification; he has lost. The Prince leaves after a brief farewell. Portia watches him go, and comments,
"A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so" (2.7.78-79).

Later that same century Nathaniel Bacon was telling everyone that "All is not gold that glisters," and it was Miguel de Cervantes who put pen to paper and believed:

    "'Tis an old saying, the Devil lurks behind the cross. All is not gold that glitters. From the tail of the plough, Bamba was made King of Spain; and from his silks and riches was Rodrigo cast to be devoured by the snakes."
    --Don Quixote (1615)
The following year Thomas Middleton wrote in his quarto A Fair Quarrel. "All is not gold that glisteneth." It's reputation continued to grow with a variation from George Herbert's "All is not gold that glisters," composed around 1630; a few decades later in The Hind and the Panther (1687) John Dryden declared, "All, as they say, that glitters is not gold."

Hobbits and wizards and Sauron--oh, my! All that is gold does not glitter, said J.R.R. Tolkien about how some things that are attractive are not always what they seem to be with numerous novel references in his Bilbo Baggins' song:

Synonymous phrases are: Don't judge a book by its cover and appearances are deceptive. Some other bullion bearing phrases; good as gold; heart of gold; and worth one's weight in gold. Finally, did you know Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album, generally known by a number of names, including Zoso and Led Zeppelin IV, was completed soon after J.R.R. Tolkien released his hobbit-filled trilogy? One notable referent to this expression about gilded illusions in Stairway to Heaven is, `'There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold". Many say this lyric among others were inspired by Tolkien's story.


Ammer, Christine,The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms, 1997.

Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, 1997 edition, Facts on File Inc

Merchant of Venice

The Phrase Finder