The past few weeks have been especially grueling here in the office, so this post from April of 2012 seemed pertinent:
Most people would probably not be surprised to learn that the words “travel” and “travail” are related. Sure, we often associate travel with fun and adventure, while “travail” can mean “agony” or “torment”; the connection between these meanings is probably only obvious to sadomasochists. In fact the root word, “trepalium”, was a Latin term for an instrument of torture, a contraption made of three stakes (“pales”) to which a victim was tied before being subjected to unspeakable horrors. That word lives on today as the name of a French death metal band; that doesn’t even need a punchline.
Of course, in another, less strenuous sense, “travail” can simply mean “toil” or “effort”, and those are things that most businesspeople, at least, will recognize as part of travel. The etymological connection makes sense, and it’s not just because of the drudgery of the frequent flyer or the traveling salesman. Through most of human history, the majority of travel has been driven by economics; people usually went someplace else either to find new work, or to carry on their existing trade. Travel didn’t just require labor; it was labor. If you were traveling, chances were very high that you were on the job.
So the idea that “travel” and “travail” are linked by their shared connotation of “work” actually makes a lot of sense. What is really intriguing is the connection to “trepalium”. Back in Roman times, this was a very specific device with a solitary purpose: to inflict agony. This is not like other metaphors for work, like “grindstone” or “treadmill”, which hint at pain or discomfort as a side effect of productivity. All the trepalium produced was pain and discomfort. Sometime back in the history of language, somebody used the word “trepalium” to suggest that work was a form of torture, and the suggestion was resonant enough to embed itself in our language. So the next time you feel like your office is really a gothic torture chamber in disguise, maybe you’re not being overdramatic — maybe you’re just being traditional.