"Over the pail"

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Several people have written to note the odd phrase used by Paul Ryan in answering questions about Todd Akin's "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down" remarks ("In Exclusive Interview, Paul Ryan Distances Self From Todd Akin", KDKA CBS 2, 8/21/2012):

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“His statements were outrageous, over the pail. I don’t know anybody who would agree with that. Rape is rape period, end of story,” Ryan told KDKA Political Editor Jon Delano.

I suspect that Mr. Ryan aimed at the familiar expression "beyond the pale" and missed, maybe due to blending it with "over the line". Perhaps he himself thinks that the expression is a metaphor for trying to put six gallons of milk into a five gallon pail, or perhaps the eggcorn-suggesting spelling was due to the transcriber at KDKA. (I note that the original article has now substituted "pale" for "pail".)

Arnold Zwicky entered "beyond the pail" into the Eggcorn Database on 8/16/2007, and discussed it on Language Log in "Pails and Flounders", 8/8/2007. Arnold argued that "beyond the pail" is not really an eggcorn, since neither the original nor the subsitution makes any obvious sense. He quotes Paul Amstrong,

… who used the "pail" spelling in his blog a while back, was astounded to discover that the spelling was supposed to be "pale", and even more astounded to read about the history of the expression.  His actual words: "For better or worse, it's an idiom I picked up and I use it as a whole.  I don't know where I picked up the pail spelling but I considered it an idiom and thus seemingly odd spellings or disjoint meanings are not beyond reason…")

But I think that "over the pail" really is an eggcorn, since it modifies the expression to make it fit a plausible metaphor of trying to put more stuff into a container than it can hold, with a figurative meaning like "over a limit imposed by nature". "Over the pail" also echoes "over the line" and "over the top", which can have a similar meaning. And as Andy Averill observes in the comments, there's also "kicking over the pail", which Rep. Akin certainly did.

Michael Quinion's World Wide Words had a good explanation of the original expression "beyond the pale" back on 2/8/2003.

Choice of words aside, Rep. Ryan's answers in that interview were more than a bit evasive, since he and Todd Akin co-sponsored a bill in the last congressional session to limit federal funding for abortion coverage to cases of "forcible rape". This presumably aimed to exclude statutory rape, cases where the victim is unconscious, etc. — exactly the same cases that Rep. Akin apparently meant to exclude from his category of "legitimate rape":

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Delano: “You sponsored legislation that has the language ‘forcible rape.’ What is forcible rape as opposed…”

Ryan: “Rape is rape. Rape is rape, period. End of story.”

Delano: “So that forcible rape language meant nothing to you at the time?”

Ryan: “Rape is rape and there’s no splitting hairs over rape.”


  1. Andy Averill said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

    Could also be connected with "kicking over the pail".

  2. Shlomo Argamon said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

    I assume that when Paul Ryan was speaking to the journalist, he wasn't spelling out his words, so he likely just said "over the pale", which isn't very different from "beyond the pale", no?

    [(myl) Well, he said "over the [pel]". We can guess that he was aiming at the idiom "beyond the pale", but we don't know whether he thought of what he said as "over the pail" or "over the pale". Since "pail" as a noun is a standard and common English word, while "pale" is not (except in the idiom "beyond the pale" and a few related phrases); and since a pail is something that can be over-filled or knocked over, it was natural for the transcriber to get it wrong. Whether Rep. Ryan shared the lexical substitution or not is unclear — we don't have any evidence either way.]

  3. the Wardle said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

    I've heard that "beyond the Pale" refers to a crime that was too severe to be punished by deportation to the Pale. The Pale being the bit of Ireland that was directly under the control of the English crown in olde times, IIRC.

  4. boris said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

    Isn't "Pale of settlement" using the same meaning of "pale"? I never thought of that before, though. I probably had no idea how "beyond the pale" was spelled and it was just an opaque idiom to me.

    [(myl) Yes, exactly. See e.g. Michael Quinion's discussion for details.]

  5. Jon Weinberg said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

    Mark: re your last paragraph, it's not the case that "forcible rape" and "legitimate rape" are intended to exclude the same class of cases. "Forcible rape", as used in House Republicans' "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," is a legal term intended to exclude statutory rape. "Legitimate rape" is a rhetorical term that's used in certain political circles to convey a broader sense that a lot of rape claims aren't "legitimate" because they're, well, made up: that the incidence of rape in US society is lower than thought, and that women seeking abortions charge rape in situations it didn't happen. Though Akin stated at one point this week that he meant to say "forcible," he also said in an interview with Dana Loesch that his use of the word "legitimate" referred "to false claims like those made in Roe v. Wade."

  6. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

    Maybe it's a Wisconsin dairy thing.

    In Ireland, beyond the Pale was an area where "here be barbarians"


  7. Adrian said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 4:41 pm

    I don't think you (bwim AZ) can argue that something "is not really an eggcorn, since neither the original nor the substitution makes any obvious sense" because idioms by their very nature rarely appear to make sense.

    [(myl) But Arnold's point was that the original "eggcorn" definition focused on cases where the lexical substitution exchanged an otherwise-meaningless-in-context word (an archaism, or a proper name, or a foreign word, or an unanalyzed unit, or etc.) for an alternative that more-or-less makes sense. Examples are "cold slaw" for "cole slaw", or "youthanism" for "euphemism", or "feeble position" for "fetal position". An obvious generalization is to cases where both the original and the substitution make sense, e.g. "when all is set and done", or "you have have another thing coming", or "hone in on". In the case of "beyond the pail", the original involves an archaism (pale n. from Latin "palus"), but the replacement pail, though common as a noun, isn't connected in any obvious way to a sensible interpretation for the phrase.]

  8. tpr said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 5:50 pm

    What strikes me about controversial discussions like these from a linguistic point of view is that certain conversational implicatures seem to get inverted. Normally, people are charitable enough in their interpretations that if what you say is roughly in the ballpark of what you mean, people will understand you, correcting for speech errors and so on. But when you talk about very controversial subjects, any departure from a precise rendering of your meaning will be immediately exploited by people who will wantonly interpret you in the most negative possible light.

    If you recall, Whoopi Goldberg's "rape rape" comments about Roman Polanski's conviction were also about the distinction between forcible rape and statutory rape, and the interpretation that was favoured in the frenzy was that she was saying there are acceptable kinds of involuntary sex. On the face of it, I find that an implausible interpretation, and if you view the video, it's clear she is talking about the distinction between violent rape and sex with a minor (statutory rape). I'm not entirely convinced that Akin was making the same distinction between forcible rape and statutory rape when he used the phrase "legitimate rape", but if I put my "charitable interpretation" hat on, his biological argument would at least make more sense. If there are mechanisms in humans that can lower the chance of pregnancy in the event of rape (as there are many other species), then it seems more plausible they would be triggered by violent sex than under-age sex.

    Incidentally, it may also be that the opposite of Akin's biological argument is true given that sex can sometimes trigger ovulation, a possibility that if I remember correctly was the basis for Randy Thornhill's theory of a evolutionary advantage associated with rape as a reproductive strategy. Thornhill's theory has also attracted ire by those who accuse him of rape apologetics (usually because of the naturalistic fallacy or an unfortunate misconception about the fixedness of traits that have a genetic component that makes people think he's saying rapists can't help themselves). There is nothing inherently impossible about the possibility that rape was selected for in evolution, but it's very difficult to talk about these issues without triggering a fire storm. *covers head*

  9. Victor Mair said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 5:51 pm

    See especially proverbs #6 and #7:


    Might there have been some interference from these proverbs having to do with milking, all Germanic?

  10. Ken Brown said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 5:57 pm

    Is "pail"/ bucket more common in US English than in British? It seems a bit quaint to me. Neither it nor "pale"/fence are a productive part of my use vocabulary I think. I would guess that I am more familiar with "pale" in written texts, which I associate with "palisade" (same origin of course), but I read a lot of history so that's probably not the case for most Brits.

    [(myl) I believe that "pail" is the standard variant in the North and maybe North Midland parts of the U.S. It's certainly the form that I grew up with.]

  11. jk said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 6:32 pm

    There's an eggcorn database? If so, I once saw in *print* the phrase "without further adieu."

    [(myl) That one was entered by Ben Zimmer on 2/15/2005.]

  12. Brett said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 8:09 pm

    @Ken Brown: "Pail" also sounds a bit quaint (or perhaps "cutesy") to my American ear. There are contexts in which use of "pail" would be completely unremarkable, but they are contexts that are generally quaint or cutesy already—for example: milking a cow by hand, shoveling sand at the beach, or picking blueberries.

  13. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 8:19 pm

    In California "pail" is more specialized than "bucket" and it's usually modified by "lunch," "mixing" or something like that.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 8:26 pm

    The bucket v. pail graphs in the google n gram viewer are a bit different for the AmEng and BrEng subsets. Bucket perhaps more dominant in BrEng for longer; but bucket has pulled away more dramatically from pail in AmEng within the last four or five decades. Brett is correct that context matters a lot, although I'm not sure if more detailed inquiry would find cutesy/quaint the best organizing principle if one could quantify bucket-dominated contexts v. pail-dominated contexts.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

    Not perhaps as interesting as "over the pail/pale," but re Cong. Ryan's "rape is rape" tautology not being reflected in his actual legislative record, there are several existing federal statutes that use the phrase "forcible rape" to presumably pick out some subset of a broader category (I haven't taken the time to see how precise the definitions are), with the distinction drawn presumably making sense in the relevant context to a majority of Congress. There was also some publicity last winter about the FBI changing the old and fairly narrow definition of "rape" it used for compiling national crime statistics (since it's primarily a state-law offense and different states define sex-related offenses differently, there are obvious apples-and-oranges problems in getting useful national aggregate data) to a broader and more "inclusive" definition. See http://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/attorney-general-eric-holder-announces-revisions-to-the-uniform-crime-reports-definition-of-rape.

  16. ksineath said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 9:58 pm

    I thought Ryan was going to say "over the line." I was surprised to hear "pale/pail." I assumed he combined the two idioms. I know someone who does this quite regularly, and entirely unintentionally. One example, "We need to stop beating the elephant in the room."

  17. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 2:20 am

    Random thought: a song for those who believe their national borders are 'porous' – 'There's a hole in my pale, dear Liza…'

  18. Dakota said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 4:52 am

    Where I grew up in the midwest, we used a "pail" for milk, specifically a "milk pail" and a "bucket" for cleaning. I understand both "lunch pail" and "lunch bucket" but would myself say "lunch box", although our generation had lunch bags. Webster says "slop pail" but we said "slop bucket". Slops are a mixture of leftover bread crusts, milk, and table scraps used for feeding or "slopping" the hogs; the cats and dogs that hang around the farm would also be fed slops.

  19. GeorgeW said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 5:27 am

    It seems that some people have a problem with the term "forcible rape" which distinguishes it from "statutory rape." But, I have never heard an objection to the term "statutory rape" which distinguishes it from . . . um . . . forcible rape?

  20. richard howland-bolton said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 6:03 am

    On the 'Pail/Bucket' usage in the UK.
    I was at school (in East Anglia in the late 50's early 60's) with a boy whose surname was Playle. His nickname was of course (Playle -> pail ->) Bucket.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 6:18 am

    I'm not sure whether Dakota is from one of the Dakotas, but my usages as a boy in Stark County, Ohio were identical with the ones he describes.

  22. Dakota said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 8:31 am

    @Victor Mair: Relatives in N and S Dakota, Iowa, and of course the Lake Wobegon area of Minnesota. The Iowa accent, though, that is really something, even now. If you're ever driving through at breakfast time, get off the interstate somewhere, go into town, and find the coffeeshop where the pickups are all parked. Then sit down at the counter and just listen. Ask if there is a "house paper" (for camouflage) and they will probably pull out the morning newspaper from under the counter and give you free refills while you eavesdrop. Same thing for ranger territory (northern Minnesota iron range).

  23. Joe1959 said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 8:39 am


    "Without further adieu" – brilliant! I am so going to start signing off my eMails with that one :-)

    @Ken Brown

    I don't regard "pale" as a purely historical term in my dialect of British English (West Midlands). I particularly remember it as a child ('60s and '70s) in the form of "paling(s)" – a type of temporary agricultural / horticultural / industrial fencing consisting of vertical split chestnut coppice poles linked at, say, five inch intervals by two or three horizontal rows of twisted, paired strands of soft iron binding wire. The pales were sharpened at one end. Used "points down" the pales could be hammered into the ground to create a free-standing fence or temporary enclosure. Attached to fence posts and used "points up" the pailings would have deterred casual intrusion into, say, building sites.

    In the (English) Midlands I still hear dialect users from my parents' generation use "palings" as a generic term for fencing.

    I assumed that pailings had long been superseded by other forms of (plastic or galvanised steel) temporary fencing, but googling "cleft chestnut fencing" or "chestnut paling" showed that not to be the case. Further investigation of some of the sites found also seems to indicate that "pale" is a fencing industry term for the vertical components of other types of fencing.

  24. Joseph F Foster said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 8:40 am

    Those of us who are / were in the Field Artillery are familiar with the word pale and its derivative paling.
    The following is sung to the tune of "Battle Hymn of the Republic":

    Can't you hear the bugles blowin' from the palin's in the
    Hear the chiefs o' section callin' as we get up in the dark?
    Get the smell o' slum an' coffee as upon the trucks we load;
    'Right by sections!', Watch the guidon, an' we're out upon the

    park = the gun park
    chief o' section == noncommissioned officer, usually a sergeant
    first class, in charge of a gun section, usually two field pieces
    and their crews

  25. not an expert said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 8:44 am

    if the pale in "beyond the pale" was a fence, that phrasing (which is odd to my ears) still would make sense, no?

  26. acilius said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 9:11 am

    Mr Ryan grew up in Wisconsin, went to college in Ohio, and works in Washington, DC. I have used the expression "beyond the Pale" in all of these areas, and in places in between. Often as not, it elicits looks of incomprehension. So, I believe it is not a particularly common usage in those parts of the USA. Based on that belief, I would guess that it is possible that Mr Ryan, who seems to have been very studious as a lad, may have read about the Pale of Settlement before he had heard the phrase "beyond the Pale." If so, that phrase would not seem to him to preserve a fossilized word, but to be a living figure of speech. To such a person, the difference between "over the Pale" and "beyond the Pale" would be a trivial one.

  27. Brett said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 9:16 am

    @GeorgeW: I very strongly dislike the term "statutory rape," because it implies that the act involved is only "rape" because a statute says so. Whether that's the case is a linguistic question really, hinging on what ones means by the unmodified term "rape," but using the term that way creates real problems.

    In cases of rape involving minor victims, it is very common for the perpetrators to present the crime as being "only" statutory rape. Describing the crime that way, people following the case tend to form the association that what was involved was an essentially amicable sexual encounter that unfortunately involved a participant under the age of consent. That distracts from the fact that these cases frequently involve coercion; even if there is no violence involved, the case could still be rape if the victim were an adult! Roman Polanski's rape case has followed exactly this model. His defenders characterize it as "statutory rape" implying that the girl gave (legally insufficient) personal consent, when in fact she was drugged and protesting.

  28. Jon Weinberg said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 9:30 am

    @GeorgeW, and following on Brett's point: I don't think folks object to the existence of a category of forcible rape as a lexical matter. But people care when the term is used in such as a way as to exclude statutory rape victims from legal protections, as in the bill Mark L mentions that Reps. Ryan and Akin sought to enact.

    @JW Brewer: So far as Lexis reveals, the only existing federal statutes using "forcible rape" in an operative context relate to counting particular classes of crimes for purposes of federal grant allocation. 42 USCS § 3796ee et seq; 42 USC 5603 & 5654; 42 USC 13701 et seq.

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 10:36 am

    Jon W.: that context makes sense b/c rape is very rarely prosecuted as a federal rather than state-law offense (and it looks at a quick glance as though the substantive federal criminal law has been modernized to avoid the word and subsume it within the offenses of "sexual abuse" and "aggravated sexual abuse"). My point was merely that Rep. Ryan et al. had taken an off-the-shelf phrase rather than invented a new one, as Rep. Akin seems to have inadvertently and foolishly done (cf GKP's prior LL post on that). But surely someone could take issue with whether distinguishing forcible rape from statutory rape (if that's all that's left over) is the best policy in the context of grant allocation etc. — as I noted above, the definition for statistics-keeping has been broadened with the press release noting that this was in part an attempt to signal that a broader class of victims was being taken more seriously.

  30. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 10:42 am

    "The poor woman has called for aid, and stretched forth her hand, doctor; I cannot but help her over the pale out of the briars." From William Wycherley's _The Country Wife_, written some time in the 1670's.

  31. tpr said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 4:08 pm


    In cases of rape involving minor victims, it is very common for the perpetrators to present the crime as being "only" statutory rape. Describing the crime that way, people following the case tend to form the association that what was involved was an essentially amicable sexual encounter that unfortunately involved a participant under the age of consent.

    Defendants routinely describe their acts in lesser terms, but I'm not sure that is a problem with the existence of those terms or rules out the possibility that they can also be applied accurately. If a person forcibly rapes someone below the age of consent the crime can be prosecuted either as a forcible rape or as statutory rape. In practice, it is easier to prosecute someone for statutory rape because all you have to show is that the victim was under age and not whether they consented or not. In the case of Polanski, he was initially charged with the more serious rape offence, but this charge was dropped as a result of a plea bargain in which he agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of sex with a minor. Many people consider that an injustice to the girl involved, but as far as the courts are concerned that's all he's been found guilty of to date.

  32. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 11:18 pm

    "Pale" for "pail" and "bail" for "bale" are common mistakes in stories about farming, in my experience. This morning I read a story on The Atlantic's website where a frustrated commenter noted that the word pail had been misspelled:

    Kathy OMalley
    "…squeezing two udders rhythmically into a pale…" You guys fire all the copy editors over there or something?

    >> regiments of mugwort-weeding and hay-bailing

    Regimens, not "regiments." And it's hay-BALING, not "bailing."

    dry enough to bail and bundle it," Bennett told me. "But because it's so brutally hot and dry, you can cut hay at 10 o'clock in the morning, and bail it at 3 o'clock in the afternoon."

    BALE, not "bail."

    >> Cruikshank's dairy faired far worse

    Fared, not "faired." Guess the editors are all on vacation or got laid off.


    The story was corrected to say "pail," but it was not corrected to say two teats were being squeezed instead of two udders. Another reader complained about "donners" instead of "donors."

    Off topic, I've seen a couple of uses of udder instead of teat that look like people are avoiding "teat" as a taboo word. I can't tell if the use of udder for teat is ignorance or taboo avoidance.

  33. Stella said,

    December 9, 2012 @ 2:16 pm

    "pale" in "beyond the pale" means fence. It is a perfectly good English word.

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