Saturday, February 21, 2015


I traveled a lot over the last week or so, in one of those odd swells of time when you have multiple significant events to attend in multiple places. It was looking forward to all of the events, several of which were culminations of a kind for various people close to me. But I wasn't looking forward to the travel, as public transportation isn't seamless here in the greater Bay Area. It's usually just a matter of waiting an extra hour here or there when you miss a bus or train by five minutes, so, though not exactly painful, it does get a bit wearing. Still a good book and a stoical attitude can go a long way.

The events were all wonderful as it turned out but the travels were, well, not. I lost my backpack in San Francisco, which was of course my own fault, but which happened in part because of a ghost San Francisco muni train which kept saying it had arrived, or actually, was 'departing' when it wasn't even there. I came back to Santa Cruz on possibly the worst day at the worst time, which was Valentines Day, the beginning of a warm holiday weekend, and at the end of an already long journey, it literally took me an hour to make what is normally about a ten minute bus trip because the roads were packed to the bursting point. And on my final return trip I was actually making a list of all the subpar things that had happened on the four trips I'd just made when the train I was on broke down in Redwood City. It didn't get better from there.

But of course, travel and travail are closely associated in our minds, and not just by sound. The good think about long trips is that they don't usually leave much of a mark once you get through them. But I started thinking about words like harrowing, ordeal and travail as a result of all this, and travail in particular caught my interest.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the derivation of travail takes the standard course back to Latin. In English it means 'toil or labor', the Old French of the same spelling has all that and more, including 'arduous journey', but the further back we go the closer we get to torture and torment ending in an obscure reference to something called a tripalium, which is supposed to have been a Late Latin instrument of torture, tripalis meaning "three stakes". However no one seems to have left a record describing it or its uses, and for that we should perhaps count ourselves lucky.

The word travel which originated in the late 14th century comes from travailen 'to make a journey', and of course goes straight back to travail's Latin roots. I liked what the Online Etymology had  to say about it:

The semantic development may have been via the notion of "go on a difficult journey," but it also may reflect the difficulty of any journey in the Middle Ages. 

As with travel itself, looking up words takes you on some unexpected byways. I came across a website previously unknown to me called Language Log.The rather rambling entry included a bit about the word travail, but I am indebted to it for a different reason. It has introduced me to a line from T. H. White's Mistress Masham's Repose, which I believe will in future be my constant invocation when blogging here:

"Think! Great Powers of Pedantry Assist Me Now!"

And I suppose I should really get to the book as well...

(Oh, that's Goya's  A Pilgrimage to San Isidro that heads up this cheery post. But I bet you guessed at least the artist already.)


  1. Now I hear Tony Bennett singing about your backpack. And just for fun after your harrowing ordeal,

  2. Roly polys! Cool. I actually thought some of the names other people had for them were completely different creatures.

    Not coming up with the Bennett song. But it does remind me that somewhere in the coure of my net roving yesterday I came across something about an author who had written a novel based on his actual finding of a lost backpack on a train or something. So maybe something equally good will come out of mine. Actually, they could write a novel from its contents because unfortunately I had a mini laptop in there.

  3. Any relation to trouble? And travailler is French for work, noun form travail. This is suggestive, I think..

  4. Not sure about trouble, Peter. I'm going to guess no. I thought maybe travel would be related to traverse but it isn't.

    When I was trying to come up with an image for this, I saw a lot of French signs, leading me to think that in French it is a lot more everyday speech than it is here.

  5. If the words are related, the kinship goes back earlier than that given in Merriam Webster;s etymology.

  6., and Ruth Ozeki's book about the found Hello Kitty lunchbox, "A Tale for the Time Being".

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  8. eana, any apparently inexplicable gaps in this thread may be due to the discussions's apparently having wandered of its own free will, over to my place at I have just now realized that this accounts for an odd juxtaposition over there.

  9. Yeah, that's what I meant. I must have had both tabs open on my computer and commented on the wrong one.

  10. Man, I should have guessed that song, Nancy! But it's nice to listen to it now.

    In what seems like a kind of miraculous development, The wallet appeared at my door yesterday. The person had stuck both my address book and my check book in it, and thrown in a mailbox, and the post office had found my address and sent it to me. I'm out some cash and a computer, but on balance I am pretty happy with the outcome, especially as I have to fly sometime in the near future and wasn't sure how I was going to do that without valid ID.