Daily Archives: January 14, 2010


“I tripped the light fandango, turned some cartwheels across the floor…” Elisa paused and shrugged. “But apparently I was supposed to stick with the pole, because the instructor said, ‘Pal, that’s beyond the pale.'”

Maury raised an eyebrow. “In a pole dancing class? That’s hardly harem protocol.” He took a sip of his pint of pale and grabbed some peanuts from the pail on the table. We were at a Mexican-bar-style pub that also served Spanish food.

“Far from it, I’m sure,” I said. “In such a performance, the pole is the pale.”

“Well,” Elisa said, “I didn’t have much at stake.” She shrugged again and smiled insouciantly.

“But you were at a stake,” I said. “The pole is a stake, because a stake – a boundary stake, especially – is a pale. Latin palus, originally a stake that stood in for an opponent in practice sparring, but then a boundary stake, and then the area enclosed by a boundary.” I reached to the tray the waitress had brought and took another drink.

“As in the Pale of Settlement,” Maury added, “which was in Russia the area in which Jews were allowed to live. Or the English Pale, which was the British-occupied turf in Ireland, beyond which dwelt all those terrifying Celts.”

Beyond the pale, the metaphor, seems to have come from a general reference to the use of pale to designate a a safe area, rather than as a specific reference to either of those,” I said, and picked a peanut from the pail. “That’s how the evidence goes, anyway.” Crunch.

“So is pole cognate with pale, then?” Elisa asked.

“Yep,” Maury and I replied simultaneously.

“An how about pail,” she asked, shaking the bucket.

“Nope,” Maury said, and had another pull of his pale.

“But your kneecap is,” I said, “and so will my supper be, when it arrives. Patella and paella.”

“My supper would be related to your pole, if they had shish kebabs,” Maury mused. “Impaled. But my ale is not. That kind of pale comes from Latin pallidum.”

“The more popular kind of pale, for sure,” I said. “Pale blue, pale yellow, pale green, pale pink; pale face, pale skin, pale eyes… All the most common collocations. The post kind pales in comparison.”

Pale Fire,” added Maury, ever the Nabokov fan.

The waitress brought a plate of nachos mounded with melted cheese. “There’s another kind of pale,” Maury said: “A cheese scoop. From a French word for ‘shovel’.”

“Say,” said the waitress, looking at Elisa, “weren’t you in the pole-dancing class?”

Elisa looked up and blenched slightly. “Yes!” She looked at the waitress for a moment and recognized her. “You were two poles down, weren’t you?”

“That’s right! You, me, and the sixteen vestal virgins.” She smirked and turned to me and Maury. “Your friend here is a wild one.”

“Yes,” Maury said, “she seems to have managed a bit of a blot on her escutcheon, we understand.”

“If you’re talking heraldry,” I said, “better to say she has a pale on it now.” I looked at Elisa and the waitress. “A vertical bar.” The waitress looked at me uncertainly. I was afraid she was about to cut me off. “Anyway,” I added, “we know she’s quite lively.”

That was Elisa’s cue. “That’s my name!” she burbled. “Elisa Lively.” She extended her hand to the waitress.

“Shelly Miller,” the waitress said, shaking hands. “Hey, your food’s about ready, but you guys –” she turned to me and Maury – “did she tell you about where her shirt ended up?”

We looked up, eyebrows arching. “I think she was about to get to that,” I said, suppressing a wicked smile.

“I’ll come back when it’s calmed down a little and fill in any missing details,” Shelly said. She leaned a little towards Elisa and said, in a loud whisper, “I think something of yours ended up in my bag.” Elisa smiled, but she was beginning to look kinda seasick.

And so it was, much later, as Shelly Miller told her tale, that Elisa’s face, at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale…

The reader may find it useful to glance at the lyrics to Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” at www.procolharum.com/w/w9901.htm.


This is a good word for someone in a state of dejection – or someone we would like to see ejected! It growls in with the opening /r/ (do you notice how you round your lips when saying it? it’s not because of the w – we always round our lips some when saying /r/). Then it releases roughly into the aggressive lax mid front vowel, closer and tighter than an /a/ but not so high and light as an /i/. And then it snatches again with the affricate, the teeth set as though ready to rip with the incisors. And finally, after a bounce, a thudding stop with a /d/. It’s like a large, nasty dog lunging at you in hopes of ripping your jugular. And perhaps a little like a sharp blast of thunder, and the rending of fabric. And then there’s the double resonance of retch – the sound of the word and the sound of the action. And the harshness of the echoes of ratchet.

The effect of this word thus varies from a bit of verbal dyspepsia to a corrosive condemnation. No wonder there are at least three musical groups called Wretched – one punk, one doom, and one death metal. Oh, and a TV series, Wretched with Todd Friel, which is at the exact opposite end of the spectrum – it takes its name from “Amazing Grace”: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”

Well, we assume that Todd Friel and his listeners and viewers are not intending to be among those cast out at the last judgement. But they may see themselves now as dejected specimens needing salvation, or perhaps outcasts of some sort, and that would be reasonable, given the word. Dejected is from Latin “throw down; cast down,” and wretched is formed from the noun wretch, which comes from wrecca “exile, banished person”. (The same Germanic root that made this word wandered in a different direction in German, becoming Recke, a fairly rare word for “hero” or “warrior”.)

So we have conditions and people we may describe as wretched because they are in a terrible condition, downcast, perhaps decrepit – a wretched hovel, perhaps. And often we want to make it clear that the described thing or person is most wretched – a common collocation.

But we also have things that are not downcast but are vile and utterly demeaning or demeaned, as for instance wretched excess, a common collocation referring to unbelievable prodigality of expenditure (Google |”wretched excess” dubai| and you will get almost 2000 hits).

And of course we have things that we wish to demean, that we see as base and beneath us (perhaps we want to eject them – eject being from Latin for “cast out”), and for these we reserve the phrase wretched little – often to describe things or people that are not in fact physically small. It’s a phrase one almost has to spit after saying.

Also seen out with wretched fairly often: life, thing, man, and refuse. Refuse? The noun, not the verb (so note the echo in the first syllable). It’s on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty, near the end of the poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus (written for the statue):

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Thanks to Dawn Loewen for suggesting wretched.