It started yesterday, when Geoff Nathan posted this to ADS-L:

I’m giving a mid-term in phonetics, and have asked students to transcribe some words. So far, here are words that at least five students (out of 63, almost all native speakers of American or Canadian English) don’t know: choral, palisade.

Discussion on palisade ensued.

The word goes back to Latin palus ‘stake’ (so does the pale of beyond the pale). From NOAD2:

[1] a fence of wooden stakes or iron railings fixed in the ground, forming an enclosure or defense.

[2] • historical   a strong pointed wooden stake fixed deeply in the ground with others in a close row, used as a defense.

[3] • (palisades) a line of high cliffs.

[4] • (the Palisades) a ridge of high basalt cliffs that line the western side of the Hudson River, in New Jersey and in New York, beginning across from New York City in New Jersey and extending north to Newburgh in New York.  [ [5] from OED3 (March 2005) Also: any similar formation of cliffs elsewhere.]

The historical development of these senses is not entirely clear, though it does seem that sense [4] precedes sense [5]. From Wikipedia:

The Palisades, also called the New Jersey Palisades or the Hudson Palisades [or the Palisades of the Hudson (River)], are a line of steep cliffs along the west side of the lower Hudson River in northeastern New Jersey and southern New York in the United States. The cliffs stretch north from Jersey City approximately 20 mi (32 km) to near Nyack, New York. They rise nearly vertically from near the edge of the river, approximately 300 feet at Weehawken and increasing gradually in height to 540 feet near their northern terminus.

… The Palisades appear on the first European map of the New World, made by Gerardus Mercator in 1541 based on the description given him by Giovanni da Verrazano, who suggested they look like a “fence of stakes”.


Senses  [3] and [4] are pretty clearly metaphorical extensions of [1] and/or [2]. A palisade as fence:


On [5}, we now have an assortment of river palisades: the Palisades of the Kentucky, the Palisades of the Potomac, the Palisades of the Mississippi, and the Palisades of the Desert (in the Grand Canyon, along the Colorao River). Plus various palisades along the Pacific (giving us, among other things, the L.A. neighborhood of Pacific Palisades). In addition there are mountain chains referred to as palisades, for instance:

The Palisades (or the Palisade Group) are a group of peaks in the central part of the Sierra Nevada in the US state of California. They are located about 12 miles (19 km) southwest of the town of Big Pine, California. The peaks in the group are particularly steep, rugged peaks and “contain the finest alpine climbing in California” (link)

While I’m doing items traceable back to Latin palus, there’s the name of the town I live in, Palo Alto. Palo is Spanish ‘stick, pole, tree’; the city is named for a landmark redwood named (in tlhe 18th century) El Palo Alto ‘The Tall Tree’:


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