(n.) a fence post
The ‘pale’ in beyond the pale is a fence post. In that sense, it derives at length from palus, a Latin word for a wooden stake (and is therefore unrelated to the adjective pale, which comes from the same Latin root that gave us pallid). Fence pales or palings, as they’re still often known, were typically of simple design and merely hammered into the earth to mark a boundary or enclose a specific area, like a farmer’s paddock. But despite their simplicity, they often had a more significant purpose: lines of pales were used to mark the outskirts of local authorities, and the limits of different regions’ jurisdictions. For that reason, literally going “beyond the pale”—that is, outside of that limit of legal protection—involved straying into increasingly lawless and doubtful territory, and thereby giving us a phrase for acting in an unwise or unacceptable manner.
Having doubtless heard different versions of this particular etymological tale, however, we’ve had a few people query this explanation over on Twitter—most of them keen instead to pin it to specific places and areas. Yes, it’s certainly true that The Pale was once the name given to the area of Ireland under English control. And yes, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a Pale of Settlement was a boundaried area in Russia and Russian-occupied Poland inside of which Jewish citizens were required to remain. But alas there’s no proof either of these specific pales—nor indeed any of the others you may have heard mention of in the context of this phrase—are the origin of beyond the pale.
There are too many problems in matching up dates, and there’s no evidence in the written record to suggest the pale in question here was ever anything other than a general boundary or limit. As the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “The theory that the origin of the phrase [beyond the pale] relates to any of several specific regions ... is not supported by the early historical evidence, and is likely to be a later rationalization.”
Ultimately, as neat as some etymological stories may seem, it’s often the case that the truth is the most straightforward explanation.