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What Does "beyond the Pale" Mean?

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  • Written By: Bethney Foster
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2016
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The idiom “beyond the pale” is used to describe an action that crosses society’s boundaries and that is unacceptable. Literally, a "pale” is an ancient word for a wooden stake, many of which might be put together to make a fence or boundary. As such, the use of the word “pale” in this way is also related to the word “impale.” Both “pale" and “impale” have their roots in the Latin word palus, which means stake. When someone went “beyond the pale,” he literally went to the other side of a fence or crossed a boundary, going into an area where he was not permitted or advised to go.

The word "pale" was used to describe various places to which someone was not permitted or advised to cross throughout the history of England. The most famous use of the word comes from Ireland and is likely to be from which the phrase “beyond the pale” came into common usage. The pale referred to the parts of Ireland that were controlled by the English Crown. When someone went "beyond the pale" in 14th-century Ireland, she was going beyond the boundaries in which the institutions, society, and law of Britain were in force. While an English idiom, the phrase is still commonly used in Ireland.

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Another commonly accepted origin of the phrase is to refer to the punishment for someone who behaved badly. A person who broke a law or didn’t behave by accepted rules might be forced to leave the enclosures of a community or city. If the person was forced to leave this enclosed and protected area, it could be said that the person was being sent “beyond the pale.”

While its usage in Ireland may have placed it into common usage, the idiom can first be found in print in a work titled The History of Polindor and Flostella from 1657. The phrase continues to be used in literature and music. Beyond the Pale was released as a movie in 1999; lends itself to the title of albums by Fiona, The Dark Poets, and Jim Gaffigan; and is the name of several different songs, bands, and musical ensembles. Literary works using the phrase as their title include novels by Mark Anthony and Elana Dykewomon as well as a short story by Rudyard Kipling. A publications company in Northern Ireland also goes by the name Beyond the Pale.

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