If I told you my neighbour is beyond the pale, you’d expect that he did something objectionable, something outside of normal standards of acceptability, something beyond the bounds of decency.
But why is he “beyond the pale”?
The reference used to make more sense when the earth was younger than it is today.
The obscurity arises because we no longer have pales.
Pales are really just pointy sticks (as Vlad the Impaler well knew). But pales are also fences made out of pointy sticks. If they are big pointy sticks, you might call the fence a palisade.
In dangerous times, stepping outside of the town’s protective barrier – the pale – was viewed with suspicion: you were probably up to no good.
But it could as easily mean that your neighbour is literally on the other side of a picket fence.
Language is loaded with archaic references easily understood in modern usage. It’s part of the fun hidden inside the English language.
Ever hear of the guy who never does anything halfway? He’s “in for a penny, in for a pound.” But we don’t have pennies in Canada anymore, and we stopped using pounds of tobacco as currency since before we were Canada.
In fact, we don’t really use pounds at all since the country converted to the much simpler metric system.
Nevertheless, common usage still maintains that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” – but only because it flows off the tongue far more readily than, “A tiny bit more than twenty-eight and a third grams of prevention is worth more than just slightly less than half a kilogram of cure.”
Okay. Maybe the metric system isn’t perfect, after all.
But we would have been better off if we’d just quit the old measurements cold turkey. Instead, we let a handful of old fogeys who can’t wrap their heads around change dictate that some of the old measures would be allowed to co-exist alongside their more sensible metric cousins.
The idea was that attrition would assure that the old way would eventually slide into oblivion.
But more than 40 years later is apparently not eventual enough for some geezers who still can’t buy a kilogram of ground beef or live on a hectare of land. Trouble is, you give some people 2.54 centimetres and they’ll take 1.60934 kilometres.
They’re beyond the pale.