Wednesday, 23 March 2016

It's been a hard day's plight: the story of journey and travel

Who doesn't love travel? Come on! Hands up! No? Oh, all right. There's always one who thinks travel is torture, but if that's you, you're in good company. And you're quite right. At least you would have been in good company a few hundred years ago. Travel is quite literally torture, or at least it was. And how was your journey? As long as it was 24 hours, you were fine. If it took 48 hours, that would be two journeys, 72 hours - three journeys, and so on. These two words, both supplied to English courtesy of the Normans, have come a long way from their origins and much of the way, at least for travel, it wasn't very pretty. So let's start from the beginning, like all good journeys, and travel the long road to the present.

First of all, how did journey start on its journey? A few thousand years ago, a group of nomads somewhere in south-east Europe or west Asia spoke a group of dialects that we term Indo-European, ultimately the distant ancestor of both English and French, as well as most of the languages of Europe and south Asia. Although linguists cannot be certain of the exact nature of the language these peoples spoke, they can trace the origins back from the modern forms of many words as well as the forms in ancient languages like Latin, Greek and Sanskrit.

One postulated form in Indo-European is *dyeu (postulated forms are always written with an asterisk, as they can't be verified, never having been recorded), which had the meaning of “shine”. It produced the Latin dies, “day”, as well as a variety of words in other languages, most of which also meant “day”, clearly because the day is the time when the sun shines. Strangely enough, the English day is not from this root but from another root meaning “heat, hot season”. However, we do indeed have a word which descends from this root right down through Germanic and into modern English, and that word is Tiw, which was the name of the ancient Germanic sky god. Indeed, this sky god even had a day named after him – Tiwesdaeg, better known today as Tuesday. Whether it is indeed the brightest of days is beyond this discussion.

The Latin dies passed directly into modern Spanish as día and Portuguese as dia, but underwent some changes before French and Italian inherited it. Dies produced the Vulgar Latin form diurnum, which was transformed into French jour and Italian giorno. Old French also produced the word journee, which denoted either a day's work or a day's travel, so originally a journey in Middle English denoted only how far a person could travel in one day, hence a journey lasting a week was in fact seven journeys. We also have journeyman, which was originally a reference to a day worker.

So, we can see that journey quite literally travelled on a bright road to the present. Travel, however, travelled a far darker road. It actually started out as Latin trepalium, literally “three stakes”. Palus, “stake”, was formed from a Latin root pag- meaning ”fix, settle”, which is also related to the words pax, “settlement, peace” and paciscor, “settle, pay”, which, indeed, come to us as peace and pay respectively. Palus came to mean “wood”, as that was what stakes were made of, resulting in the modern Spanish palo and Portuguese pau.

At some point in Roman times, an instrument of torture was devised, consisting of three stakes driven into the ground, hence trepalium, which seems to have become widely used and more sophisticated, giving rise to the Late Latin verb trepaliare, “torture”, from which came the Old French travailler, “torment, trouble, vex”. Now, anyone who has been in a difficult job will know how much people complain about their work, having a tyrant as a boss, or slaving away all day, and so on. So it was that travailler came to mean simply “work hard”, just as it did in Spanish trabajar and Portuguese trabalhar.

Middle English inherited travail from the Normans, but it was used for suffering and hardship rather than just work. So, how did it become travel? Well, we're so used to comfy trains, coaches and planes (at least in first class) that we tend to think of travel as a fairly relaxed and enjoyable activity, but it was far from that in the past. Imagine negotiating the rutted roads, mud, rain, snow, cold, heat, toil, tedium and danger, not to mention the sore feet and sore backsides. No wonder travel was a travail. The closest travail to that these days would be the guy sitting next to you as the plane takes off on a flight to Sydney, Australia, who says “You going to Australia? So am I!”

So there you are. A long day's journey into night is quite literally that. Yet, the idea of travel broadening the mind in the days of yore would have been far less appreciated than the idea of travel bruising the backside or fouling the feet. Just remember the next time you sink into your first class seat, press the recliner and sip your free cocktail, that travelling in the olden days would have been rather less enjoyable, and the only freebies you'd have got would have been the thumbscrews.

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