Here, listen to this while you read:
Such a moving song, about being a wandering soul in a strange land. There is a long old history of lamenting travel away from home and using it as an image for the woeful sojourn in this world before going home to heaven. Wayfaring was not seen as a good thing.
If you learn French, at some early point you will encounter travailler, which looks like travel but means ‘work’. It’s what is often called a “false friend”: a word that looks familiar but doesn’t mean what the English means. It’s also sometimes called a “false cognate”… but it’s not. Travailler, the English word travail meaning ‘labour, duress’, and our word travel all come from the same source: an old word for a kind of torture.
Look, travel wasn’t even safe centuries ago. If you were far away from home, you had to carry enough money with you to pay for your needs, and that money could be stolen by bandits, who were in ample supply. Hotels and restaurants were not really things for a long time; there were inns, and otherwise you would camp by the road or try to find someone to take you in. On long trips you might have to do work to earn your board, or simply steal. And of course you had to carry enough clothing and other things with you. The discoveries you could make seeing foreign places were not so often worth the travails.
Until they were. Because the travails reduced with improvements in technology and social support. In medieval times, travel for most people was a sign of trouble or displacement; by the 1800s, it had become something that people with the means would do to expand their horizons. And it has improved more and more. We may complain about what a bother it is to travel now, but I could walk out the door right now with just my clothes and wallet, go to the airport, and fly to pretty much anywhere in the world, and get by just fine (at least until the credit card bills came in). This was not even a thing one could do when I was young, not quite.
I’m happy about this, and not just because I like seeing other countries. I also like seeing things closer to me. I walk a lot every day. Electronic devices confirm this for me. Today I walked more than 25,000 steps; few are the days I walk fewer than 10,000. I can do so easily, with enjoyment and without fear, because of the technology and social supports we have developed. I am not in significant risk of natural or human hazards. I enjoybeing a wayfaring stranger. Heck, I loveit.
I don’t need to dwell too long on the etymology of wayfaring. Its two parts are both old Germanic roots. You can see their relatives – real cognates – in other Germanic languages. In German, for instance, Weg means ‘way’ or ‘road’ and fahren means ‘travel’ or ‘ride’ (or, of course, ‘fare’ in the old verbal sense). We don’t use either of those pieces in English as much these days in the old literal senses: wayshows up in by the way and out of the way and along the way but not so often in I was walking along a way or We were riding on a way (but on a freeway, yes); How are you faring sounds pointedly old-style, and I was faring to Calgary would get a “Huh?” (but I paid my fare is normal).
So the world and the language move on. Wayfaring, hovering as it did in a space that is now between farewell and welfare, and with its extra wistful echo of waif, does not seem quite the right word anymore, and not just because road trips are not as valorized as air trips.
There was a time when, if one was going to travel, it would have been a very good idea to get support from many people – to make connections near and far, to arrange for food and lodging, and so on. The interpersonal burdens were substantial. Now, just go online and do everything electronically, and then take off. Who needs to rely on people?
Except for the people who made all of that electronic stuff happen. It didn’t just get there by itself. Watch this video of Ed Sheeran singing “Wayfaring Stranger.” He does it all by himself… if you don’t count everyone who helped make the technology that he uses. Likewise, I can take a walk alone by myself and be a wayfaring stranger, and not feel like a lost soul, because of all the other people who helped make it possible.