In reading a book recently, I came across a reference to something I’d never heard of before: a “ha-ha.”
This turned out to be a fun little piece of landscape trivia to learn about. A ha-ha is a feature of landscaping that allows for both the practicality of a fence or wall while maintaining the illusion of natural countryside. So one might look out across the lawn of a grand country house in England and see sheep grazing picturesquely in the meadows beyond with no worry about those sheep potentially moving out of their proper place in the vista and finding their way right up to the front door.
Basically, a ha-ha seems very similar to the moat in a zoo exhibit. It keeps animals inside their enclosure by presenting them with a wall at the bottom of a slope, yet it allows the people outside of the enclosure the pleasure of imagining that there is no barrier between them and the animals they observe. The name “ha-ha” is derived directly from the the sound of amused surprise one might make upon discovering that a beautiful landscape of natural countryside is actually a fenced-in pasture for livestock.
The deer parks kept by English aristocracy also featured these ditches dug all the way around the sprawling wilderness, again so as to contain the wild creatures within the grounds. In fact, according to the Wikipedia article on ha-has, the deer parks featured one additional barrier, a fence at the top of the ha-ha wall. A deer from outside the park could easily jump in but once inside would find it impossible to get back out. Ha-ha, indeed.
That fence atop the wall turns out to be called a “pale.” Isn’t that interesting? My whole life I’ve heard the phrase “beyond the pale” to describe something egregiously beyond the bounds of decency. Just as my students do with expressions they’ve heard but have no practical knowledge of (a “doggy dog” world, a hard “road” to hoe, etc.), I constructed a meaning for “beyond the pale” that had nothing to do with what it actually referred to. My mental image involved someone encountering behavior so bad that it would cause them to “pale,” in terms of having their face turn white from the sudden loss of blood in their head and coming dangerously close to fainting due to that bad behavior they’d just been exposed to. “Beyond the pale” to me meant behavior even worse than the ordinary brand of bad behavior that might cause a person to pale. It makes sense, right?
Usually I like knowing all the behind-the-scenes info, so you’d think I’d be happy to have learned that “beyond the pale” means “on the other side of the fence.”
Except . . . how prosaic is that? I greatly preferred my incorrect (but far more poetic and romantic) understanding of the term 🙂