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,