“I tripped the light fandango, turned some cartwheels across the floor…” Elisa paused and shrugged. “But apparently I was supposed to stick with the pole, because the instructor said, ‘Pal, that’s beyond the pale.’”
Maury raised an eyebrow. “In a pole dancing class? That’s hardly harem protocol.” He took a sip of his pint of pale and grabbed some peanuts from the pail on the table. We were at a Mexican-bar-style pub that also served Spanish food.
“Far from it, I’m sure,” I said. “In such a performance, the pole is the pale.”
“Well,” Elisa said, “I didn’t have much at stake.” She shrugged again and smiled insouciantly.
“But you were at a stake,” I said. “The pole is a stake, because a stake – a boundary stake, especially – is a pale. Latin palus, originally a stake that stood in for an opponent in practice sparring, but then a boundary stake, and then the area enclosed by a boundary.” I reached to the tray the waitress had brought and took another drink.
“As in the Pale of Settlement,” Maury added, “which was in Russia the area in which Jews were allowed to live. Or the English Pale, which was the British-occupied turf in Ireland, beyond which dwelt all those terrifying Celts.”
“Beyond the pale, the metaphor, seems to have come from a general reference to the use of pale to designate a a safe area, rather than as a specific reference to either of those,” I said, and picked a peanut from the pail. “That’s how the evidence goes, anyway.” Crunch.
“So is pole cognate with pale, then?” Elisa asked.
“Yep,” Maury and I replied simultaneously.
“An how about pail,” she asked, shaking the bucket.
“Nope,” Maury said, and had another pull of his pale.
“But your kneecap is,” I said, “and so will my supper be, when it arrives. Patella and paella.”
“My supper would be related to your pole, if they had shish kebabs,” Maury mused. “Impaled. But my ale is not. That kind of pale comes from Latin pallidum.”
“The more popular kind of pale, for sure,” I said. “Pale blue, pale yellow, pale green, pale pink; pale face, pale skin, pale eyes… All the most common collocations. The post kind pales in comparison.”
“Pale Fire,” added Maury, ever the Nabokov fan.
The waitress brought a plate of nachos mounded with melted cheese. “There’s another kind of pale,” Maury said: “A cheese scoop. From a French word for ‘shovel’.”
“Say,” said the waitress, looking at Elisa, “weren’t you in the pole-dancing class?”
Elisa looked up and blenched slightly. “Yes!” She looked at the waitress for a moment and recognized her. “You were two poles down, weren’t you?”
“That’s right! You, me, and the sixteen vestal virgins.” She smirked and turned to me and Maury. “Your friend here is a wild one.”
“Yes,” Maury said, “she seems to have managed a bit of a blot on her escutcheon, we understand.”
“If you’re talking heraldry,” I said, “better to say she has a pale on it now.” I looked at Elisa and the waitress. “A vertical bar.” The waitress looked at me uncertainly. I was afraid she was about to cut me off. “Anyway,” I added, “we know she’s quite lively.”
That was Elisa’s cue. “That’s my name!” she burbled. “Elisa Lively.” She extended her hand to the waitress.
“Shelly Miller,” the waitress said, shaking hands. “Hey, your food’s about ready, but you guys –” she turned to me and Maury – “did she tell you about where her shirt ended up?”
We looked up, eyebrows arching. “I think she was about to get to that,” I said, suppressing a wicked smile.
“I’ll come back when it’s calmed down a little and fill in any missing details,” Shelly said. She leaned a little towards Elisa and said, in a loud whisper, “I think something of yours ended up in my bag.” Elisa smiled, but she was beginning to look kinda seasick.
And so it was, much later, as Shelly Miller told her tale, that Elisa’s face, at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale…
The reader may find it useful to glance at the lyrics to Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” at www.procolharum.com/w/w9901.htm.