Monday, September 26, 2011



Aldous Huxley, "Canned Fish," in Adonis and the Alphabet (1956; rpt. London: Chatto & Windus, 1975), pp. 128-135 (at 130):
Buried in every language are nodules of petrified poetry, rich and unsuspected veins of fossil wisdom. Consider, for example, the French word travail. It is derived from Late Latin trepalium, the name of a kind of rack used for punishing criminals or persuading reluctant witnesses. Etymologically, work is the equivalent of torture. In English we preserve the word's original sense in relation to obstetrics (a woman 'in travail') and have endowed it with the secondary meaning, not of work, but of wayfaring. Journeys in the Middle Ages were exhausting and dangerous. 'Travel' is trepalium—torment for tourists.

The word 'work' is emotionally neutral; but 'toil' and the now obsolete 'swink' carry unpleasant overtones. It was the same in the languages of classical antiquity. Ponos in Greek and labor in Latin signify both 'work' and 'suffering.' "And Rachel travailed," we read in the Book of Genesis, "and she had hard labour." Two words for work, two words for pain. Moreover, when Modern English 'labor' carries its primary meaning, it generally stands for work of the most disagreeable kind—compulsory work, as in the case of penal 'hard labor,' or the heavy unskilled work which is performed by 'labourers.'
This is the generally accepted etymology of travail and travel. Besides English dictionaries see, e.g., Henry and Renée Kahane, "Byzantium's Impact on the West: The Linguistic Evidence," Illinois Classical Studies 6 (1981) 389-415 (at 409):
The name of a fourth-century tool of torture, τριπάσσαλον tripássalon, consisting of Grk. τρι- tri- 'three' and πάσσαλος pássalos 'stake', was borrowed, within the Christian terminology, through translation: Lat. trepalium, a compound of tri- 'three' and palus 'stake', appeared in 582 and became the base of Fr. travail and its numerous cogeners, such as Eng. travail.
But apparently the etymology is disputed by Charles H. Livingston, Skein-Winding Reels: Studies in Word History and Etymology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1957) = University of Michigan Publications in Language and Literature, 29, which I haven't seen.

According to Du Cange, trepalium is a hapax legomenon, occurring only in Canon 33 of the Council of Auxerre (non licet presbytero nec diacono ad trepalium, ubi rei torquentur, stare). I don't find τριπάσσαλον in Liddell-Scott-Jones or Bauer-Gingrinch-Danker, and the digital Thesaurus Linguae Graecae is unavailable to me. The Greek word occurs in Passio Andreae 10—see Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha, Part II, Vol. I, ed. Max Bonnet (Leipzig: Hermann Mendelssohn, 1898), p. 23.


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