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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, March 9, 2012


Here in Ontario, it's one of the busiest days for travel in the year, as the school March break gives many the opportunity to flee our beloved country for somewhere warm.

The word “travel” comes from a Latin instrument of torture (this may come as no surprise if you have squabbling kids in the back seat): the trepalium, from tres (three) and palus (a stake or pointed stick). It doesn't bear thinking about how they used these three-pointed sticks. The French squished the Latin word down a bit into travail, then and now the French word for work (torture to many people, I'm sure).

The English borrowed it from the French in the Middle Ages, also to mean “work”, pronouncing it traVALE. It could also mean “be in labour” (which fits with the idea of torture) as well as “go on a trip”, presumably because that was such an arduous undertaking back then. Eventually, the other meanings of “travail” dropped out of the language, and the word came to be pronounced TRAV'll, and spelled “travel”.

If you love to travel, why not check out my trips for ballet lovers at http://toursenlair.blogspot.ca/p/upcoming-ballet-trips.html

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  1. Hello,

    A friend of mine (the American linguist) made fun of us upon learning the Romanian word "munca" (work, labour): he said it came from "torture", in Slavic.

    I also learned that "munka" is the word used by Hungarians, for the same meaning.

    I begin to suspect most (if not all!) people, of all ethnicities had misgivings about ... working! :)



    I came to wonder if "trespass" stood for taking "three steps" into forbidden territory. Maybe not.

  2. Trespass comes from trans across and passare to pass.

  3. One synonymous of travel is journey, you have certainly to comment it.
    A french reader.

    1. Indeed I will make a post about "journey" sometime.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.