Yesterday I was asking about the origin of the word trabajo ("work") in Spanish, that most etymologists think that comes from Latin tripalium (or trepalium according to other sources), an instrument of torture, and its verb tripaliare, "to torture". An English cognate is travail, that according to the Merriam-Webster it still conveys the meaning of "agony, torment", while the Oxford dictionary says it means a "painful or laborious effort".

Both dictionaries agree with its origin, but a note in the M-W also says:

From trepalium sprang the Anglo-French verb travailler, which originally meant "to torment" but eventually acquired the milder senses "to trouble" and "to journey." The Anglo-French noun travail was borrowed into English in the 13th century, followed about a century later by travel, another descendant of travailler.

The Oxford dictionary seems to confirm that travel is a variant of travail. So it seems that the English verb to travel also derives from that original torment. The similarity of travail and travel is obvious, but how did a word that meant torment evolve its meaning into journey? Are there any texts that can confirm this and in which we can see this evolution?

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    "travel (v.) late 14c., "to journey," from travailen (1300) "to make a journey," originally "to toil, labor" (see travail). The semantic development may have been via the notion of "go on a difficult journey," but it also may reflect the difficulty of any journey in the Middle Ages. Replaced Old English faran." etymonline.com/word/travel
    – Kris
    May 2, 2018 at 8:21
  • @Kris thank you, your comment may as well be an answer. :-)
    – Charlie
    May 2, 2018 at 8:26
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    Nice to be of help. Here on ELU, answers that are available on easily accessible sources like various online sources are considered general reference. We are expected to try them first before asking a question here. So mine was only a comment and not an answer.
    – Kris
    May 2, 2018 at 8:29
  • @Kris you're right, I'm very used to use online resources in Spanish Language but I still have to learn what's available for the English language. My bad.
    – Charlie
    May 2, 2018 at 8:43
  • Did you think to look on an etymology website like this one?: link
    – BillJ
    May 2, 2018 at 11:19

2 Answers 2



I have found a text that uses "travell" to mean "work", dating from 1576.

In the introduction to "The Rocke of Regard" by George Whetstone, he uses the following passage:

and further, for that I know the most part of youth (to whome I chiefly dedicate the fruite of my travell) are so carelesse of their commoditie, as they set light of sound advice, unless such persuasions be sauced (in some respect) with their owne desires...And yet, least they lighting on some discourse of worth, shoulde by and by be led away with the sight of some wanton devise, I have published my travell under these foure following titles.

At some point between 1579 and 1587 (these dates being the period when Sir Thomas Bromley was Lord Chancellor), "travel" is used for "journey", in the Journals of the House of Lords (see 2nd snippet view).

Sir Thomas Bromley, Knight, Lord Chancellor of England, is at this Time so visited with Sickness, that he is not able to travel to the Upper House of this Our present Parliament, holden at Westm., nor there to supply the Room and Place in the said Upper House, among the Lords Spiritual and Temporal there assembled, as to the Office of the Lord Chancellor, or Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England, hath been accustomed


If 1560 is early enough, one book alone contains several uses of "travail" meaning "work", and at least one where it means "make a journey".

The Calendar of State Papers, Foreign Series, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1559-1560 contains this passage, dated Feb 12 1560, in which "travail" appears to cross the border from "work" to "journey":

As for his keeping watch, he thinks the French in Leith and Inchkeith would not deny but that the fleet had kept them waking. There has been never night since he came hither, being possible for men to travail upon the water, but that he has had 300 or 400 men armed in boats to guard the haven's mouth, that no succours should come in to them between the shore and the ships; and that they might not be able to put more men or victuals into Inchkieth.

A further example, from Feb 19, 1560, blurs the lines a little between the two meanings:

Cecil considered that Sir James Croftes was the meetest for that purpose, from his experience amongst the Scots, and his travail taken in the discourse of the said journey;

There are several (over 30) other uses of "travail" to mean "work" in the same publication, an example of which is below, from Feb 25, 1560:

Most heartily thanks him for his earnest travail about the said payment, and is right glad that it is so well ended.

Hence, it can be seen that travail was certainly used in the mid-late 16th Century to mean both work and journey, and that the same was also the case for "travel" a decade or two later.

Also, the hardship and difficulty of making any lengthy journey seems to be pertinent to the evolution from one meaning to the other.


According to the OED the etymology of travel it is derived from the same word as travail v.

2a. intr. To make a journey; to go from one place to another; to journey. Also fig.


c1290 S. Eng. Leg. I. 25/61 For ȝe þus i-trauailede beoth fram so ferre londe..Ich eov nelle greui nouȝt.

c1330 R. Mannyng Chron. (1810) 3 He was of grete elde, & myght not trauaile.

1413 Pilgr. Sowle (1859) i. i. 1 I had longe tyme trauayled toward the holy Cyte of Ierusalem.

1544 Letanie in Exhort. vnto Prayer sig. Bviii To preserue all that trauaile by lande or by water.

1590 Spenser Faerie Queene i. ii. sig. B7 Long time they thus together traueiled.

a1616 Shakespeare Measure for Measure (1623) i. iii. 14 He supposes me trauaild to Poland. 1691 J. Norris Pract. Disc. Divine Subj. 94 Why should we..quit the Road they have taken, if we may safely travail in it?

1714 J. Gay Shepherd's Week Proeme sig. A3 Other Poet travailing in this plain High-way of Pastoral.


c1410 Sir Cleges 16 To men, that traveld in londe of ware.

c1480 (▸a1400) St. Eugenia 326 in W. M. Metcalfe Legends Saints Sc. Dial. (1896) II. 133 Sen scho mycht nocht trawel hym til.

1483 Cath. Angl. 391/2 To Travelle, itinerare.

1568 (▸a1500) Freiris Berwik 39 in W. T. Ritchie Bannatyne MS (1930) IV. 262 For he wes awld and micht not wele travell.

1594 T. Nashe Vnfortunate Traveller sig. L3 He is no body that hath not traueld.

a1616 Shakespeare As you like It (1623) i. iii. 108 What danger will it be to vs,..to trauell forth so farre? 1697 Dryden tr. Virgil Georgics iv, in tr. Virgil Wks. 126 A thirsty train That long have travel'd through a desart plain. 1768 L. Sterne Sentimental Journey I. 34 An English man does not travel to see English men.

1855 F. A. Paley Æschylus (1861) Pref. 28 They have..pointed out the path in which succeeding editors should travel.

1901 W. R. H. Trowbridge Lett. Mother to Elizabeth iv. 13 [They] travelled down from London in a special Pullman attached to the Bristol express.

  • 1
    Note the observation "The semantic development may have been via the notion of "go on a difficult journey," but it also may reflect the difficulty of any journey in the Middle Ages." on etymonline.
    – Kris
    May 2, 2018 at 8:26
  • But this only covers the start of the [metaphorical] journey, not the twists and turns along the way OP is asking about: '[H]ow did a word that meant torment evolve its meaning into journey? Are there any texts that can confirm this and in which we can see this evolution?' May 2, 2018 at 8:40

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