An earlier post showed how the younger word trail has taken over meanings once associated with path. Similarly, the younger road is now used to refer to what was once covered by way. Comparing the King James Version (KJV) with contemporary translations of the Bible indicates how the use of the two words has changed over the past 400 years.
The KJV uses road only once in the entire Bible, in the coastal king Achish’s question to David “Whither have ye made a road to day?” David is at the time a military hero-turned-fugitive in conflict with Israel’s king Saul. Achish has allowed David and his “600 men” to stay in his territory. David’s army supports itself in ISIS-like fashion by attacking towns to the south of both Achish’s and Saul’s territories, “leaving neither man nor woman alive, and taking away the sheep, and the oxen, and the asses, and the camels, and the apparel.” King Achish is asking David not about road construction but about where he went to raid others. David’s answer: “Against towns in Saul’s territory.” His massacres have left no witnesses to say the contrary and Achish can think David “hath made his people Israel utterly to abhor him; therefore he shall be my servant for ever.”
Road was first used in English to refer to the “act of riding horseback” or “a journey on horseback”. It later referred to the “act of riding with hostile intent” and then to acts of hostile intent whether or not with horses—raids. The metonymic association of riding and the place of riding gave rise to the sense that we know today: an “ordinary line of communication used by persons passing between different places, usually one wide enough to admit of the passage of vehicles as well as of horses or travellers on foot” (OED).
Road was just beginning to be used in this sense in King James’ time; much more common was the use of way:
King James Version: the way to Shure; rough ways; way of the sea
Modern translations: the road to Shur; rough roads; road to/by the sea
In King James’ time, way matched well with the biblical Hebrew derek, Greek hodos, and Latin via. All could refer to a “stretch of land, trodden solid and therefore used as a road.” All could be used to refer to what would be labeled a path, trail, street or road today. They could also be used in the sense of travel or journey or, even more generally, when referring to life’s journey, conduct, behavior, or custom.
Today, however, the use of way to refer to a material road or road-like structure is rare, apart from names of streets such as “London Way” that might lead to Ye Olde Towne Shoppe. Way is mostly used in the abstract senses of “direction,” “manner of proceeding” or “means”. So while Milky Way well translated Latin’s via lactea in Chaucer’s time (“See yonder, lo, the Galaxye, Which men clepeth [call] the Milky Wey”), Milky Road would today better express what the poet Ovid said the gods traveled over to arrive at the palace of the mighty Thunderer.
In the Gospel of John, it is the Greek hodos that leads to the supreme deity’s palace. Jesus says he is going there and expresses confidence that his followers know the hodos. Thomas says, “We don’t know where you’re going. So how can we know the hodos?” Jesus replies “I am the hodos—and the truth and the life.” Most versions follow the KJV in translating hodos by way here. I was brought up to think this meant “the means by which you get to heaven” (the cross, the resurrection, etc.), without questioning why this futuristic notion would be mixed in with the non-temporal references to truth and life. I rarely if ever associated the image of a road with this saying. Rather than being encouraged to think of how “truth” and “life” relate to a part of everyday experience—a road, I was taught to understand this text as an abstract claim in keeping with a dogma. The Message is the only translation I know of that keeps the image:
Jesus said, "…You already know the road I’m taking."
Thomas said, “Master, we have no idea where you’re going.
How do you expect us to know the road?”
Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life.
But even The Message bows to tradition when translating one of the first names for the new religion described in the book of the Acts of the Apostles: “the hodos.” Immediately preceding and following the use of this name are two key events that most modern translations rightly depict as occurring on a road. An Ethiopian traveling from Jerusalem back to his homeland is met on the hodos/road by a Jesus follower, hears “the good news” and continues on--or in--his hodos rejoicing. The scene immediately switches to a Saul who is tracking down people of The Hodos/the Road. (Most if not all translations keep the King James “Way” even if they used “road” in the other contexts.) But heading toward Damascus, he is blinded by “a light from heaven.” A Jesus follower takes Paul in and explains about Jesus “the one appearing to you on/in the hodos/road.”
The road is the way. The road, the journey on the road—sometimes a path, sometimes a trail, sometimes a street, sometimes a paved road—is where one encounters the Divine.
 Koehler & Baugartner. The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.
There are an ever increasing number of trail races but no path races that I know of. A way cleared for bicyclists will usually be referred to as a path but one for skiers as a trail. Immigrants follow a path rather than a trail to citizenship but politicians follow a campaign trail rather than path. So what is the difference between a path and a trail? How do our mental pictures of the physical passageways that these words refer to influence our understanding of figures of speech in which they occur?
To study these two words, I began with the Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (OED) inherited from my father. It is squeezed into two 9”X12” volumes, each having 2000 pages with fonts so small that a magnifying glass was provided by the publisher to make them readable. Its definitions could be compared with those in my Unabridged Webster’s dictionary (a less weighty volume: only eleven pounds, its 2,600 pages readable without a magnifying glass). Then patterns of American usage could be studied via the Corpora of Historical American English and of Contemporary American English, composed of a few hundred thousand texts with about a billion words.
Path is the oldest of the two words. With a Germanic, pre-Christian origin, its use in Old English goes back to at least the 8th century. It first referred to “a way beaten or trodden by the feet of men or beasts” and by Chaucer’s time (late 14th cent.) was also used to refer to a way to be followed, similar to today’s sense of trail: “diuerse pathes leden diuerse folke the rihte wey to Roome.”
Trail is a much younger word. It is from the French but with no known occurrences in English until four centuries after William the Conqueror brought his soldiers and language into England. It was first used to refer to parts of clothing drawn behind (a robe’s trail) and then, a century or so later, to tools dragged behind such as nets or sleds (“They…keepe certaine dogs..which they yoke together...to a sled or traile”). The sense of something dragged behind is then extended to the marks of something dragged (as the tracks of a wagon) or left behind (as a scent or footprints) but this use is not found in writing until around the time that the King James Bible was published (1611). Trail is never used in the King James Bible so the one yearning to find her lover is told to follow “the footprints of his flock” rather than the flock’s trail and the psalmist is led by the Good Shepherd along paths rather than trails.
The use of trail to refer to “a path or track worn by the passage of persons travelling in a wild or uninhabited region; a beaten track, a rude path” is not known until the early 19th century and even in the 20th century this use was “chiefly in U.S. and Canada.” In the Corpus of Historical American English, the noun trail does not occur at all in the decade of the 1810’s. It does occur in the 1820’s but only in the sense of something left behind (e.g. footprints, broken twigs, blood, piece of cloth) by someone or something on the move. In the 1830’s and 40’s, path occurs with its wide range of senses ten times more frequently than trail, frequently in contexts where “trail” would likely be used today:
These examples are taken from James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Pathfinder and indicate why the novel had this title and not The Trailblazer. The first occurrence of trailblazer in the historical corpus is not until 100 years after the novel was written. In Cooper’s time, paths rather than trails were blazed:
Since then, the use of trail has continually increased and it now occurs almost as frequently as path. Meanings once covered by path are now associated more if not exclusively with trail. In the early 19th century, trail referred to short-lasting marks such as footprints, bent grass, blood, or scents that were left, usually unintentionally, by people or animals at a specific time and followed by others in pursuit of those who left the marks. But from the mid-19th century until today, this sense of trail has increasingly been complemented by another: a passageway (rather than the marks of a specific person or animal passing that way) that is relatively long-lasting and followed to go through a specific area or arrive at a specific place (rather than to find a specific person or animal that went that way). Contrasts in contemporary connotations of the two words reflect this change: trail connotes greater length and, if made by humans, intentionality than path; if referring to a passage made by animals, trail connotes repeated use more than path.
Given the history of these words and our current understanding of them, here’s what I’m especially wondering about: How do contemporary uses of trail and path in reference to physical passages influence our understanding of their figurative use, especially in fixed expressions or in traditional translations of texts from other times and cultures?
For example, path to enlightenment and spiritual path are common expressions; trail to enlightenment and spiritual trail are rarely if ever used. But do our spiritual—or philosophical or psychological—journeys involve paths more than trails? I like trail races but the idea of a path race, especially through wilderness areas, does not appeal to me at all. It reminds me of races where I have seen runners—or been the runner—thrashing around in underbrush and scrambling up steep embankments to get back to the trail because a path was mistaken for the trail. I am understanding path as a “a track formed incidentally by passages between places, rather than expressly planned“ (OED) rather than “a route that someone follows to go somewhere or achieve something” (Merriam-Webster’s online definition for “trail”). The directions we take on our spiritual journeys are seldom “incidental”. They are along routes followed “to go somewhere or achieve something” whether happiness, peace, enlightenment, or liberation/healing/salvation. We have trail guides, not path guides, to help us along difficult physical routes. We have philosophers, novelists, psychologists, saints, prophets, and poets to help us along difficult psychological, social, philosophical or spiritual trails.
As indicated earlier, the King James Bible was published two centuries before trail began to be used in the sense “a passage…followed to go through a specific area or arrive at a specific place.” Path was used in contexts where we would use trail today. However, many translations published for today’s readers use path and avoid trail as if these two words are still used as they were in King James’ time. For example, the New Revised Standard Version, New International Version, and New English Version never use trail to refer to a route walked literally or metaphorically. The Message is one of the few translations to use trail in keeping with contemporary uses but does so only thirteen times. Practically all translations use path in one of the Psalm’s best known verses: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (NIV). “Wherever I incidentally go” or “the way that characterizes me as an individual” is an unlikely sense of “my path” in this context. A common theme in the Psalms and other biblical literature is that there is a way to follow that leads to right relationships, harmony, order; the Torah provides the essential guidelines for following this way. Perhaps this way is more a trail than a path.
Trails we follow,