Printable Version
Pronunciation: trê-vayl Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. Work, labor, especially hard, punishing work. 2. The labor of childbirth. 3. Any arduous, demanding undertaking.

Notes: Travail is a borrowed word that is generally taken as a native concoction. A person who travails is a travailer and, while travailous is available as an adjective, I much prefer travailsome because this word feels more like native toilsome than borrowed laborious: 'a travailsome effort to get the books upstairs'.

In Play: Whether work is arduous or punishing, of course, is subjective and varies a lot: "My southern friend June May March was the Employee of the Month three times last year, but the job has become such travail for her, she is threatening to leave the company." I just love the adjective; it shows such potential: "It has been a rather travailsome day for me," said the new mother in the maternity recovery room.

Word History: If travail is torture, it is with robust etymological justification. It is a cousin to fang and impale, and the granddaughter of the presumed Vulgar Latin word tripaliare "to torture with a tripalium". The Late Latin tripalium was an instrument of torture, whose name probably comes from Latin tripalis "tripod, three-staked support", based on tri "three" + palus "stake". Palus is related to our word pole and impale "to stab (as with a stake)". The original root was PIE pag- "to fasten". As you know, though, in Germanic languages the PIE [p] became [f], so, without a Fickle N, we might expect fag-ot "a bundle of sticks", and with it fang, not to mention German fangen "to catch, capture." By the way, back before cars, trains, and planes, journeys were pretty arduous, so we made travel out of travail, too.

Dr. Goodword,

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