Origin of the Word “Travel” (This explains so much…)

Don’t you find it odd that almost all travelers periodically find that traveling can become an incredibly laborious effort – at some points, a pursuit that some say borders on torture? People have been traveling for thousands of years, and we still have not quite gotten it right… How could this be? Is this only a recent phenomenon?

Tuol Sleng - Torture Room

Perhaps the room appointments and service standards need a little attention?
Photo Credit: Mendhak (cc|flickr)

To borrow some philosophy from Slumdog Millionaire, there are four possible reasons travelers encounter difficulties when away from home:

  1. They are Cheated
  2. They are Unlucky
  3. They are Stupid
  4. It is Written

From personal experience, I know points 1-3 certainly occur from time to time, and occasionally in tandem during travel… Point #4? – The Travel Gods could not be so cruel as to smite us with such challenges.

There must be more to the story…

My research began by consulting an old and trusted friend, Merriam-Webster. The entry for Travel was indeed enlightening –

  • Main Entry: trav·el
  • Pronunciation: tra-vəl
  • Function: verb
  • Inflected Form(s): trav·eled or trav·elledtrav·el·ing or trav·el·ling tra-və-liŋ, trav-liŋ
  • Etymology: Middle English travailen, travelen to torment, labor, strive, journey, from Anglo-French travailler
  • Date: 14th century

Please note the Etymology –Travel is a close sibling to the French word Travail, fundamentally defining unpleasant work. Apparently, 700 hundred years ago, traveling seemed to be a synonym for being tormented.

It is also interesting to note that Travel (like so many cuss words) can be used interchangeably as an intransitive verb, transitive verb and noun.

But the true nature of the word Travel goes much deeper – let’s research the origin of the word Travail, again with the assistance of Merriam-Webster:

  • Main Entry: tra·vail
  • Pronunciation: trə-ˈvāl, ˈtra-ˌvāl
  • Function: noun
  • Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from travailler to torment, labor, journey, from Vulgar Latin *trepaliare to torture, from Late Latin trepalium instrument of torture, from Latin tripalis having three stakes, from tri- + palus stake — more at POLE
  • Date: 13th century
  • 1 a : work especially of a painful or laborious nature : TOIL b : a physical or mental exertion or piece of work : TASK, EFFORT c : AGONY, TORMENT
  • synonyms see WORK

When the word originated, perhaps as early as the 3rd Century, a traveler was not simply tormented, no, Travel was torture.

Isn’t it refreshing to know a modern global service industry was named after an ancient device that is synonymous with torture, agony and torment? Airline customer service never looked so good.

So the greater question is not, “Why is travel sometimes so difficult?” It should really be, “At what point in our existence did we mistakenly come to believe that travel was not agonizing torture? Our ancestors obviously understood this fact and attempted to warn us by building a constant reminder into the word itself.

Now knowing the facts, anyone who sees the glass as half-full when they travel, needs an attitude adjustment. Travel could be worse – based on the origin of the word itself, we should expect Travel to be A LOT worse.

Question: “Why is Travel sometimes so difficult?” Answer: D – It is written. Final answer.

About Robert Cole

Robert Cole is the founder of RockCheetah, a hotel marketing strategy and travel technology consulting practice. He also authors the Views from a Corner Suite Blog and publishes the Travel Quote of the Day. Robert speaks regularly at major travel industry conferences, authors articles for leading travel industry publications, advises travel-related startups and the equity investment community. He is an evangelist for the global travel industry.