• Difficult, demanding work; strenuous mental or physical labor
  • An instance or act of significant exertion
  • A demanding, trying situation


  • To engage in strenuous activity, especially physical labor; to work hard
  • To deal with or experience struggles, drudgery, or stressful conditions


According to Greek mythology, the demigod Hercules, in penance for an act of insanity, had to complete twelve momentous "Labours." These travails, which remain part of a popular legend, included the slaying of the Nemean Lion, the capturing of the three-headed dog Cerberus, and even the cleaning of the infinitely poop-filled (not kidding) Augean Stables. Hercules' toils and feats of strength have immortalized him as a heroic figure, and with good reason; fictional as the stories are, they describe enough anguish and physical exertion to make anyone gasp. While few of us have to deal with gods and monsters on a daily basis, we've all had to work hard and go through difficult times. To many of us, travail is no myth.

The noun travail is usually associated with hard work, but that might be a bit of an understatement. Someone engaged in travail is giving their all, squeezing out every last ounce of strength and fortitude to complete their task. While travail often refers to demanding physical labor, the term can incorporate any intense, draining form of work or activity, such as an advanced calculus exam or a swim through choppy waters. This usage can be either general (describing the concept of exertion) or distinct (referring to a specific instance of exertion). Travail is also frequently used to describe a demanding, stressful experience. Rather than specifically referring to labor, this usage can describe any instance when you have to go through difficult times, especially when pain and suffering is involved. The death of a close relative, for example, is a travail. Whatever the usage, though, travail connotes a sense of struggle, exhaustion, and exertion in context with a situation with which, most likely, you'd rather have nothing to do.

Travail is also commonly used as a verb, and when doing so its implications remain the same. As a verb, travail simply means to endure or experience the kind of tough situations or excruciatingly difficult labor described above.

Example: Pulling on her chest pad and work gloves, Jeanie prepared for the travail of giving her pet Chihuahua a bath.

Example: The workers had to travail all afternoon, carrying their heavy loads under the oppressive sun.

Example: The lumberjack set down his ax with a sigh of relief, finally finished with his travail for the day.

Example: "How much longer must I travail?" I moaned melodramatically as I wrote yet another example sentence.

Derivative Words

Travailed: This is the preterit form of the verb travail.

Example: Day after day, the farmer travailed fruitlessly in his fields.

Travailing: This form is used to describe when someone is currently engaged in hard work or a difficult situation, or as a noun to describe the condition or act of doing such a thing.

Example: After spending all night travailing over his homework, Paul learned the next day that the assignments he had been given were optional.

Travails: The present tense form of travail is used when a singular, third-person subject exerts himself or undergoes a tribulation.

Example: "Do you think he travails like that on weekends, too?" asked Laura as she watched the garbage man toss the heavy bags into his truck.


The Latin origin of travail is certainly apropos: the word comes to us from trepalium, a noun which literally described a "torture device." This term would later evolve into the Late Latin trepaliare (a verb which describes the act of torturing), and would eventually make it into Old French as the cognate travail. The noun form of travail is first recorded in English during the mid-thirteenth century, with the verb form following a few decades later.

In Literature

From Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country:

Outside there is singing, singing round a fire. It is Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika that they sing. God Save Africa. God save this piece of Africa that is my own, delivered in travail from my body, fed from my breast, loved by my heart, because that is the nature of women. Oh, lie quietly, little one.

Here, travail refers to the struggles of a penurious new mother living in Africa.


  • A trail of travail will make you wail
  • Trek up a steep trail: A Travail


Work, Labor Day, Struggles

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of travail. Did you use travail in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.