palo, trabajar, travail, travel

Latin palus ‘a stake’ is the forerunner of Spanish palo, whose meanings have branched out to ‘a stick, pole, post, handle, branch, log, etc.’ The Latin adjective tripalus meant ‘having three stakes,’ and in the Late Latin period the term tripalium came into use to designate a device whose three stakes served as a frame for holding an unruly animal still in order to put a collar around its neck, to shoe it, or to perform some other task. Unfortunately the Romans also used such a device to hold a person down to be tortured, so Vulgar Latin created the verb *tripaliare to mean ‘to torture.’ That verb evolved to Old French travaillier, which had meanings that included ‘to suffer a pain, and in particular the pain of childbirth; to torment, annoy; to bring someone to make a decision, to convince.’ The word must have been used more loosely, almost jokingly, too; for example, a man leaving home for work might say that he was going off to his daily “torture,” and given the labor conditions in ancient times, and in many parts of the world even now, a torment it was. Perhaps from overuse in casual or sarcastic comments, the notion of torture diminished and French travail came to mean ‘difficult work’ and later even ‘work in general.’ Learned English has borrowed travail in the sense ‘toil, exertion,’ but has also preserved the early meaning ‘labor with pain, as when a woman goes through childbirth.’ In the late 1300s English borrowed the French word again, this time in the context of making a difficult journey; if a long trip seems torturous today, we can imagine what it must have been like back then, when travail passed into English and became travel. Vulgar Latin *tripaliare underwent a development in Spanish similar to the one in Old French: the resulting Old Spanish trabajar meant originally  ‘to toil, slave away, work very hard,’ but now more generally ‘to work.’ The adjective trabajado retains the original sense ‘worn out from work’ but can also mean, with regard to an object, ‘carefully worked, well-crafted.’

© 2010 Steven Schwartzman

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: verde 2 « Spanish-English Word Connections
  2. Trackback: trekking « Spanish-English Word Connections

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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