Blogs by Hilary Hopkins


January 17, 2014 / Travail

Curious about the derivation of the word “travel”, I looked it up in my American Heritage Dictionary, the one with the big appendix of roots.

It comes from the Middle English word travailen, which meant to toil, just as travail does today: strenuous mental or physical exertion, labor, or toil.   Yes, I guess I can see that—especially in Middle English times, the 12th through the 15th centuries, travel other than around one’s village would have been strenuous.

But then it gets more interesting.  Much earlier than the Middle English word-world, a Latin word, pangere, from a root pag, meaning to fasten (from which, incidentally, come our words peace and pact, among others) led to another Latin word palus, which was a stake fixed in the ground.  From there, the Latin-speaking Romans made a word trepalium, which was a ghastly thing, an instrument of torture with three stakes—ugh, let us not go there. 

Turn the “p” sound to a “v” sound, which often happens, and there you are.  Trepalium  to travail  (you can see that connection, “strenuous exertion” indeed, o the horror of it) and finally to TRAVEL, where my inquiry began.

Until I thought to look all this up, the connection of travel to travail had not occurred to me.  Now I have been thinking about it.  In my mind “travail” seems a kind of labor with some goal in mind.  One’s travails lead to something at the end.   Lots of travels do have a goal in mind (though not all).

But it may be hard, getting there.  You leave your home place and all that you know.  You go some place where perhaps you do not know anything—the language, the polite way to comport yourself, the food, the look of people and their structures and work.  The air smells and feels strange.  The plants, the animals, the landscape, all strange.   Nothing is familiar, and you can’t find where you are.  In so many dimensions you are lost: geographical, physical, social, intellectual.

I sometimes feel this way even now, when traveling, even after one hundred two countries.  Like many another modern traveler, I bring along a few things of home, objects that help me to fasten my self in place, in my own little circle of ground.   But now that I know about the trepalium, I will be warier!   Maybe I’d best stay near home!

No, no—I will risk it.  There are still things I have not seen, and I am willing to pass through travails to see them.


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