The Meaning of Beyond the Pale: What It Is and How To Use It

Do you know the definition of beyond the pale? This article will provide you with all of the information you need on the word beyond the pale, including its definition, etymology, usage, example sentences, and more!

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What does is the meaning of the phrase beyond the pale?

According to Your Dictionary, the term beyond the pale is an idiom that describes behavior that is outside the bounds of morality, good behaviour or judgment. A pale is a post or wooden stake that is joined with others to form a fence, or said wooden fence made of the stakes which are driven into the ground. A pale can also refer to some jurisdiction under a certain given authority. This authority is often held by one nation in another country, which suggests that anything outside their control was uncivilized. The pronunciation of pale is pail, but it has nothing to do with buckets. Something outside the pale or beyond the pale is outside the bounds of civilization, the limits of acceptable behaviour, the general sense of boundary, or good behavior. Originally, this term referred to things that were outside the authority of English law.

What is the origin of the term beyond the pale?

According to Word Histories, the word pale was first used in the late 14th century. This word comes from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French pal which means some stake, palisade, or space enclosed by stakes. This comes from the classical Latin palus or Latin palum, which refers to the wooden post that was used by Roman soldiers during fighting practice to represent an opponent, but such stakes can generally refer to a boundary, limit, ditch or restriction. This word comes from the pax/pac- meaning peace, the Latin pangere meaning to fic, and the Latin paciscere meaning to agree, as well as the Greek πηγνύναι or pegnunai, meaning to fix or make solid.

From this more literal definition, the term pale began to refer to some enclosed place or territory or district within some determined bounds or that is subject to a particular jurisdiction. In these days, the English pale or English rule included the territory of Calais, or pale of Calais, which was an area of English jurisdiction and colonisation in France from 1347 to 1558 in the late Middle Ages, which was retained by England rulers after the end of the Hundred Years’ War from the late 1300s to 1453. This pale also included the only part of Ireland under English jurisdiction. This English territory of Ireland which includes parts of modern Dublin, Louth, county Meath, and Kildare. This territory varied in extent between the 12th and 16th centuries. The term Pale, also known as the Pale of Settlement from the Russian čerta osedlosti, refers to the provinces and disctrive in which Jews in Russia and Russian-occupied Poland were required to reside between 1791 and 1917.

The term pale was further expanded to refer to some sphere of activity or influence. In the play The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, the English poet and playwright writes the following song for Autolycus: 

When Daffadils begin to peere,

With heigh the Doxy ouer the dale,

Why then comes in the sweet o’the yeere,

For the red blood raigns in y [= the] winters pale.

The white sheete bleaching on the hedge,

With hey the sweet birds, O how they sing.

Additionally, the noun pale can mean a conceptual boundary, and one can leap the pale or break the pale by going beyond the accepted bounds. Scottish poet and novelist Walter Scott wrote the following in his work The Search after Happiness; or The quest of Sultaun Solimaun:

O, for a glance of that gay Muse’s eye,

That lighten’d on Bandello’s laughing tale,

And twinkled with a lustre shrewd and sly,

When Giam Battista bade her vision hail!

Yet fear not, ladies, the naïve detail

Given by the natives of that land canorous;

Italian license loves to leap the pale,

We Britons have the fear of shame before us,

And, if not wise in mirth, at least must be decorous.

The term beyond the pale of was first recorded in Captain Alexander Smith’s third volume of A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats of Both Sexes, in the preface.

These follies are prettily shadowed in the sports of Acteon (a hunter who saw Artemis bathing and was changed into a stag and then killed by his own hounds in Greek mythology), who, while he suffered his eye to rove at pleasure and beyond the pale of expedience, his hounds, even his own affections, seized him, tore him, and proved his utter destruction. Therefore, let it be (by reading the misfortunes of these unhappy wretches here) your vigilance to curb your beginning desires, that they may not wander beyond moderation.

It has also been used in John Harington’s 17th century verse lyric poem The History of Polindor and Flostella in which the author states, “Both Dove-like roved forth beyond the pale to planted Myrtle-walk” when the character Ortheris goes to a country lodge with his beloved. Such recklessness made the lovers be attacked by armed men with ‘many a dire killing thrust’. Here, the message is that if there is a pale, the decent people stay inside it if they hope to have a good end.

Overall, the phrase beyond the pale means something that is outside the bounds of what is considered acceptable behavior or morality. This term was originally used to refer to things that were outside of English rule or law.


  1. Beyond-the-pale Meaning | Best 1 Definitions of Beyond-the-pale | Your Dictionary 
  2. meaning and origin of the phrase ‘beyond the pale’ | Word Histories