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Tripalium or trepalium (derived from the Latin roots, "tri- / tres" and "pālus" – literally, "three stakes") a Latin term commonly thought to be the source for several common modern words including, travail (French), trabajo (Spanish),[1][2] travaglio (Italian), trabalho (Portuguese), traballo (Galician), treball (Catalan), and travel (English).[3] It is considered to refer to a torture instrument consisting of "three stakes" (based on its literal meaning).[4][1] Save for the English word, all of these mean "work". This theory has been contested.[5]

Historical background[edit]

The original contextual usage of tripalium is still unclear. Attempts to establish its meaning have been predominantly based on varied interpretations of "three stakes".[4] The earliest references from the ancient Roman era show that it is used to describe a structure made of wood designed to securely immobilise a large and "fiery animal" (horse, oxen, cow) during examination or care. In Cicero's In Verrem ("Against Verres"), in 70 BC and 582 AD, and in an earlier text, the Council of Auxerre,[4] tripalium is used in the context of forbidding clerics to assist torture sessions and as an instrument involving three stakes used to only punish slaves. The subject would be tied to the tripalium and tortured (e.g. burnt with fire).[citation needed]. Historical records concerning the torture in the ancient Roman empire provide rich information about famous cases where it was applied and discuss the legalities thereof, but they rarely indicate the means of torture[6] and do not make references to impalement.[7]

The transition from tripalium to the French technical word travail occurred in the 13th century. Travail is still used in France today to describe the same wooden structure in the context of farrier.[5] With the evolution of the French language, Tripalium could have potentially diverged into the following variants: "traveil", "traval" or "traveaul".[8] Furthermore, in the Middle Ages, tripalium described either a structure consisting of a framework of wooden beams called Trabicula, or an individual beam in the structure.[9] These trabiculae are the direct source of architecture unique to the city of Lyon, called the Traboules – transverse structures for accessing apartments.


  1. ^ a b "trabajar". DICCIONARIO DE LA LENGUA ESPAÑOLA - Vigésima segunda edición. REAL ACADEMIA ESPAÑOLA.
  2. ^ J. Cary Davis (March 1977). ""Trabaculu > Trabajo" the Case for and against". Hispania. 60 (1): 105–108. doi:10.2307/340402. JSTOR 340402.
  3. ^ Winchester, Simon: The Best Travelers' Tales 2004 Archived 2005-04-05 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ a b c Mark Liberman (July 10, 2007). "Annals of Exoticism". Language Log.
  5. ^ a b Nicholson, G.G. "Français travailler, travail". Romania. 53 (209): 206–213. doi:10.3406/roma.1927.4295.
  6. ^ Dowling, Melissa Barden (2006). Clemency and cruelty in the Roman world. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-472-11515-0. Specific details about the types and duration of torture, however, are surprisingly scarce
  7. ^ Robinson, OF (2007). "Penal practice and penal policy in ancient Rome": 173 (footnote 92)., citing, among others, 17.3 and 27.19 of the Anecdota (Secret History) of Procopius
  8. ^ Dictionnaire Frédéric Godefroy, Paris F.Vieweg 1881. Dictionnaire de l'ancienne langue Française et de tous ses dialectes du IX au XVe siècle. Volume 8, page 23
  9. ^ Dictionnaire Français-Latin, Félix Gaffiot Trabicula : petite poutre, poutrelle