Posts Tagged ‘pale’

A Tale of Pales

Posted in English Stew, General on March 17th, 2011 by Eugene Finerman – 7 Comments

With my form of pedantic Tourettes, I have been known to start historical lectures in crowded elevators.  I am not one to miss a captive audience.  Recently, however, I was invited to speak at my synagogue.  (Unlike the late St. Stephen, who also did not first clear the topic with the Temple’s Adult Education Program.)  My topic was the life of European Jews in the 19th century, and I had 90 minutes to discuss it.  Fortunately, being in public relations I am trained to be superficial and glib. 

In fact, let me give you a summation of the various countries’ policies toward the Jews:

England and Germany:  Shut up and assimilate.

Russia:  Die, or go to America.

Austria-Hungary:   Get rich, have fun and, if you’re in the neighborhood, drop by the Palace. 

(About those rumors that I am a lobbyist for Austria-Hungary, at the advice of my lawyer I will not comment about my Swiss bank account with 1000 pounds of marzipan in it.)

However, as always, I digress.  The Jews in the Russian Empire were obliged–by the Tsar’s cossack subtlety–to live only within restricted areas.  This confined area was known as the Russian Pale.  A member of the audience asked me the meaning of that term.  “Russian Pale” does sound like a cosmetic by Max Factor; it could have covered up his bruises from the Tsarist police.  Ironically, Factor claimed to be the court cosmetologist for the Tsar and Tsarina.  I am trying to imagine Nicholas and Alexandra–the Anti-Semitic Dagwood and Blondie–arranging designated parking at the Winter Palace for Mr. Factor’s pushcart. 

But “Russian Pale” has nothing to do with Max Factor’s delusions.  Pale is not merely a deficiency of color but also a deficiency of Latin.  The Roman word for pallid was…well…pallid, and the Roman term for a wooden stake was palus.  Of course, with their Mediterranean complexions and their stone walls, the Romans were not terribly concerned about homophonic confusion between pallid and palus.  The French, with their hand-me-down Latin, maintained some distinction between pallid and palus.  They curtailed pallid to pale, and referred to a wooden fence as a palissade.  The Normans, with their hand-me-down French, imposed their rule over England but not their complete vocabulary.   The Angle-Saxons were told the French word for their complexion, but they certainly wouldn’t be given any ideas for defending themselves. 

By the 14th century the Angle-Saxons and the Normans had grown inured to each other, and discovered a common delight in attacking France.   If the harried French forces could not find the sanctuary of a castle, they would build a rampart of wooden stakes:  the palissade.  It was a useful defense against a full-frontal assault; of course, only the French were reckless enough to use that tactic.  The English longbow archers simply shot over the palissade.  However ineffectual the structure, the English liked the word and incorporated it into their evolving language.  So, to keep the livestock in–or the Irish out, a settlement would have a palisade; the extra French “s” seemed unnecessary.  In fact, so did the last two syllables.  The word soon was shortened to pale.

As early as the 15th century, the English enclave in Ireland was known as the Pale.  Outside that perimeter was “beyond the pale.”  And four centuries later, when describing the Russian territory where Jews were permitted to live, historians referred to the area as the Russian Pale.

And, on March 17th, you have learned something else the Jews and the Irish have in common.

p.s.  Let’s not forget the historic significance of this day, other than it being my birthday: