Your RDA of Irony

The Travails of Travel

Every word has a story. We might assume that the English language emerged fully developed from a business lunch between William Shakespeare and Noah Webster. In fact, language evolves. Words migrate from one culture to another, and their meanings mutate and deviate over time. French is based on Latin slang, and English is a complete linguistic hodgepodge: the ripe fermentation of barbaric German, Norwegian-accented French, second-hand Greek and punchlines in Yiddish. Our language is an ongoing odyssey.

Two thousand years ago, there was no England or an English language. Britain and the Germanic dialect of the Angle-Saxons had yet to meet. The language of Roman Britain would have sounded like a Welshman singing Verdi. Fifteen hundred years ago, the Angle and Saxons, not wanting to miss out on the fall of the Roman Empire, invaded Britain and imposed themselves and their Germanic language on the Romanised-Celtic populace. The linguistic consequence is called Old English and would sound like a Welshman gargling.

Of course, as everyone should know, in 1066 the Normans conquered England and grafted their smorgasbord French onto English. That hybrid is called Middle English. Its vocabulary was a scramble of French and German, and the language still had that Germanic tendency to elongate words by pronouncing each and every letter as a s-y-l-l-a-b-l-e. Perhaps the Bubonic Plague gave people the incentive to speak quickly; for whatever reason, five hundred years ago, Modern-recognizable-English had evolved. If thou met William Shakespeare, thou could understandeth him. However, his accent might sound like an audition for The Beverly Hillbillies, and he would be just as dumbfounded by the alien syntax from your mouth. Our language is in continuous ferment.

Let’s continue this travelogue with the word “travel.”


Travel is literally a form of torture. Two thousand years ago, some Roman soldiers in Gaul were grumbling about the drudgery of building aqueducts, roads and other future tourist attractions. They compared their back-breaking labors to a bout on the rack. ┬áThe Latin word for that chiropractic device was “tripalium.” An eavesdropping Gaul, whose ears were sharper than his Latin, misinterpreted the Romans’ slang as the word for work. In time, all the Gauls were misusing the word, which they mispronounced as “travail.” The Gauls then misinformed the Franks, who misinformed the Normans, who misinformed the English when they weren’t slaughtering them.

French modesty and Viking charm are clearly oxymorons; and that dubious heritage was evident in the Normans’ rule of England. The conquered and cowed English may not have understood their overlords’ French but they learned to give it the worst possible meaning. Travail, the French word for work, became the English word for hardship. Among medieval life’s many travails were the burdens and dangers of going on a journey.

Even the Normans acknowledged the risks. Where there were roads, the wayfarer found that robbers had the right-of-way; and he risked contracting whatever diseases were being served at the roadside inn. The English Channel also seemed to be God’s way of saying that a journey should be done only under duress. Considering its inherent burdens and dangers, this particular travail eventually acquired its distinct definition. Since medieval spelling was never constrained by consistency, travel appeared as “trauayl,” “trawale,” and “trauaile.” There was an equal flexibility in pronunciation, so Chaucer had no trouble making the word fit in with his rhyme scheme.

The Renaissance, with its wondrous sense of inquiry and innovation, sanctioned both the idea of travel and the letter “V” to spell it. The printing press, another novelty of the period, helped to promote Oxford University’s idiosyncrasies as the standard for English grammar. Among the university’s scholars and spoiled rich kids, travel evidently was preferred to trauayl. Four centuries later, the spelling hasn’t changed but now travel is regarded as a pleasure; the ads assure us of that.

Yet, we still have those medieval forebodings of dysentary-flavored cuisines and French arrogance. Indeed, many of us suspect the modern form of the Roman rack is called “flying coach.” Whether it is etymology or irony, travail and travel remain synonymous.


(Adapted from “The Traveler’s Dictionary” published in The Toastmaster, 2003)


  1. Bob Kincaid says:

    And thus is a trawler a torturer of both fish and man, negating the wisdom of our Dear Leader’s maxim that “man and fish can live together in peas.”

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