(Updated March 1 to remove some willful ignorance on my part, though left in as a
strikethrough. See comments below for how I was set straight. Quick note about that here.)
My wife and I are going to Ireland for a week in May (thank you federal tax refund!), and I recently got our guidebook, Rick Steves' Ireland 2011, in the mail. Most of our trip is going to be in Dublin, so I opened to that section and started reading. On the first page, there was this:
- "Dublin, the seat of English rule in Ireland for 750 years, was the heart of a 'civilized' Anglo-Irish area (eastern Ireland) known as 'the Pale.' Anything 'beyond the Pale' was considered uncultured and almost barbaric ... purely Irish."
(And you wonder why many Irish and their American descendants get a red look in their eye when it comes to the British government.)
The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms' entry does a great job capturing the etymology and provides more info:
- Beyond the pale: Outside the bounds of morality, good behavior or judgment; unacceptable. For example, She thought taking the boys to a topless show was beyond the pale. The noun pale, from the Latin palum, meant "a stake for fences" or "a fence made from such stakes." By extension it came to be used for an area confined by a fence and for any boundary, limit, or restriction, both of these meanings dating from the late 1300s. The pale referred to in the idiom is usually taken to mean the English Pale, the part of Ireland under English rule, and therefore, as perceived by its rulers, within the bounds of civilization.
The OED doesn't buy that, giving this note on its entry for beyond the pale:
- 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.
Normally I trust the OED, but this sounds as is it could be a bit of revisionism on their own part, given that the OED is a very British animal. I admit that I have my own biases, but in this case I'll stick to them. And it has to come from somewhere. If you close your eyes, you can clearly see some nobles sitting around the hearth talking about the Irish barbarians beyond the Pale, and that phrase taking on a life of its own. That's how English works.
Here are the senses 4b and 4c the OED mentions:
- 4b. The area of Ireland under English jurisdiction (varying in extent at different times between the late 12th and 16th centuries, but including parts of modern Dublin, Louth, Meath, and Kildare).
- 4c. More fully Pale of Settlement [after Russian čerta osedlosti, literally ‘boundary of settlement’] . A set of specified provinces and districts within which Jews in Russia and Russian-occupied Poland were required to reside between 1791 and 1917.
Both the AHD and OED entires mention the English Pale, which referred to several territories once under British control. The OED entries:
- 1. In France: the territory of Calais, an area of English jurisdiction and colonization from 1347 to 1558.
- 2. In Ireland: that part of the island (varying in extent at different times) over which English jurisdiction was established.
- 3. In southern Scotland: an area of British jurisdiction in the years 1545–9.