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In a sci-fi movie from 1957, an astronaut says he's "going to palaver" with the cave-dwelling natives. I'd never heard the word before, but my husband—a history buff—knew it by its original meaning: a conference between a 'civilized' person (or persons) and folks from a more primitive culture. Supposedly, it has disintegrated colloquially to mean something like "meaningless blather" (probably because of the way it sounds) but when I checked that Ngram thingy, it looked as though its main use in writing is in its original sense—ironically, or not.

Is "palaver" still in use? (If so, in what part of the world is it used?) In what sense is it used?

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    I've heard the term numerous times (though perhaps not much in the past ten years). Generally in a phrase similar to "that's a lot of palaver", meaning a lot of gibberish and jaw flapping with no apparent purpose. – Hot Licks May 29 '15 at 12:31
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    I know it as a synonym to parley, and in that sense I somehow get the image of pirates... But that's probably just me – oerkelens May 29 '15 at 13:52
  • A funny thing is that in certain areas (and ages) in german this word is used a lot; even these days I hear and use it from time to time. But afaik it was adapted by germans during english speaking occupation. – PlasmaHH May 29 '15 at 14:46
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    ♫ ♩ "What a palaver, what an absolute treat to see a cat and its father pick a bone in the street!" ♪ ♬ Les Misérables, "Plumet Attack" or watch video at 1:15 – Adam Davis May 29 '15 at 15:25
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    It's kind of funny to see this question today, since I've been listening to audiobooks of Stephen King's Dark Tower series. This word comes up quite a bit in those books and definitely seems to be intended to sound archaic. – Josh May 29 '15 at 16:32

12 Answers 12

35

Yes, I use it and so do many people that I know.

Nowadays it usually comes in the idiom A bit of a palaver, which refers to an argument. Usually an argument involving more than two people.

I suspect that nowadays its use amongst younger people is dying out but it is used by my fellow Britons in our decrepitude.

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    Funny, we Americans associate it with the old West and cowboys jawing around the campfire. Stephen King made extensive use of it in his gunslinger series. – Dan Bron May 29 '15 at 10:42
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    In my experience (UK) it's used not strictly for arguments, but general disorderly, heated situations of fuss, confusion, bother, people getting irritable, etc. Usually lots of talk and no action, and confused non-agreement rather than direct disagreement. For example "There was some palaver at check in because we'd been given the wrong type of tickets, but we got it sorted out in the end". I don't think I've ever seen it written down before, only spoken, it's a bit colloquial. Didn't know about the colonial history... ugghhhhh... damn history! – user568458 May 29 '15 at 11:39
  • True, 'argument' may have been too strong a word. – Chenmunka May 29 '15 at 11:46
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    its use amongst younger people is dying out - I consider myself quite young at 24, and I use the word. Though I would only use it to mean argument / disorderly situation. I had a bit of fun trying to explain this word to a Frenchman recently using similar words like raucous, hullabaloo and kerfuffle. – James Webster May 29 '15 at 15:21
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    @Dan Bron Came here specifically to comment about Stephen King's usage in The Dark Tower as well! – Kik May 29 '15 at 17:53
24

This is a very commonly used word in the West of Scotland (Glasgow etc.). We use to mean a disturbance - usually about something inconsequential. So you might say, "there was a big palaver on the bus when the inspector came on and some guy couldn't find his ticket".

It is marginally colloquial (I don't think a police officer would use it in court, "we were summoned to a palaver in Sauchihall St." - no...). Scottish colloquial synonyms would be stushie or stramash. In England, maybe to-do or carry-on.

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    This is the Northern Irish usage too, in my experience. – Nagora May 29 '15 at 13:01
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    I, too, associate "palaver" with some sort of a fuss, to-do or carry-on. I was surprised to find on this thread that its intended use is actually to do with conversation! – AndyT May 29 '15 at 13:22
  • Despite being from southern England I was more familiar with this use until I was recently reading some of Edgar Wallace's Sanders stories. – Chris H May 29 '15 at 13:24
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    Sounds like it's used similar to the Aussie's "kerfuffle", which is a word my American ears love to hear. – fotijr May 29 '15 at 18:56
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    @fotijr: We say "kerfuffle" for the same situations in the UK, too, though that may have come from Little Britain, mainly. – Lightness Races in Orbit May 30 '15 at 18:55
7

Palaver is mildly pejorative. It's often used to mean idle chat that's leading nowhere, too much talk and not enough action; sometimes it refers to talk that is intended to distract attention from the issue at hand.

I hear it used now and then, as a noun.

The ngram.

Here's my planetary location on the Dictionary of American Regional English map (they don't draw too good):

enter image description here

  • You need to say which planet you come from, OP's orders :) – Mari-Lou A May 29 '15 at 11:30
  • Wow, there was a really big palaver in the 1660s! Must have been the Great Fire of London. – benshepherd May 29 '15 at 11:56
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    Must take Google's ngrams with a few grains of salt. I've found many egregious errors in the dating (and OCR'ing) of texts. – TRomano May 29 '15 at 12:11
  • i'm from approximately that location as well. – Erich May 29 '15 at 12:16
  • Yeah, I never took it to mean arguing, just meaningless jaw flapping. – Hot Licks May 29 '15 at 12:33
6

This is basically lifted from the German Wikipedia entry -- the term is not that uncommon in German, though with negative connotations.


The word has its origins in Greek (παραβολή), and from there was adapted by Latin (parabola), Portuguese (palavra), and eventually, English.

The general meaning is "idle talk".

In many African cultures, this is considered good manners -- you get to know the other person before you start talking about the subject that really got you together.

The meaning your husband associated with the term is probably the way the Portuguese used it when trading with African people. I doubt the African people considering it good manners to this day would agree with his interpretation that it's a talk between a civilized and a savage, though.

4

It's basically used to describe an informal chat. Depending on your intonation, you could be stressing the irrelevance of the topic of discussion (e.g. when something more important should've been addressed, or you found the topic of discussion a waste of time), or you could be stressing you just talked for hours on end with a friend.

It's not just an English word. Although I'm not sure if it's a word in proper Dutch, my regional dialect (Antwerp, Belgium) does contain it. While we use it as a verb as well, it's mostly used in my Dutch dialect as a noun.

  • 1
    This is a fascinating comment. But it is about Dutch right? So it's not really about English. Please move to a comment. – Mitch May 29 '15 at 11:38
  • @Mitch The second paragraph wasn't specifically about Dutch, as I've experienced the exact same usage in English. But I can see how you construe the entire answer to be focusing on Dutch (which isn't the case). Will rephrase to make it clearer. – Flater May 29 '15 at 12:08
  • Etymology Online claims Portuguese. – Hot Licks May 29 '15 at 12:35
  • I've never heard it used to mean an "informal chat" in English and didn't know about the historical meaning OP refers to. I've only heard it in the "bit of a fuss" sense, which I have heard many times. – James World May 30 '15 at 20:22
4

Here in Texas, it is occasionally used in the sense of a sit-down type discussion, possibly a negotiation. e.g. "I went and had a little palaver with Joe about coming to work for his store." It doesn't have any negative connotations, except to denote it's not like, friends just talking with each other, there's an implication of there being some distance without making it all sound formal and highfalutin' like "conference" or "negotiation."'

4

I am from Australia (I live in Melbourne but grew up in Sydney with a Scottish father, which probably matters in this context). I use the word, usually in the phrase " a bit of a palaver ", in a mildly derogatory sense. It indicates a noisy argument or dispute, probably with a few people, but could be just 2 people. The word would indicate that I thought dispute was of little consequence.

3

Palaver: aye thats common in the west of Scotland. Around the same places as you would hear footer and knacker. "What a palaver" - what a fuss. Usually but not always referring to a needless fuss. Eat you peas, dont make a palaver our of them.

2

I'm from Chicago, since you ask, but have lived all over the US. I've never had occasion to use it myself, but I've seen it a lot in writing, particularly in the work of nineteenth century English explorer Richard Francis Burton.

As someone has mentioned, it is rather pejorative, has racist overtones, and in almost every use I've seen, is used to describe negotiations with, or between, the "natives", whether of Africa, or elsewhere. In short, very much like the usage you came across.

If you look at the OED entry, it's first attested in 1735, and sense 1. is: "A talk, parley, conference, discussion: chiefly applied to conferences, with much talk, between African or other tribespeople, and traders or travelers."

You can see why it's not used as much today, except in the sense of useless talk. It's possible the original meaning has been lost to most people.

1

The only place I have ever seen that word used in the wild (before this question) is in Prime Palaver, a series of published correspondence and essays from Eric Flint, in his capacity as "librarian" of the Baen Free Library.

So yes, somebody uses it. Eric Flint uses it. As for biographical info, I believe he grew up in California, but has lived the last few decades in Chicago.

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    I believe "Prime Palaver" comes from Isaac Asimov's Foundation series (one character actually uses the sobriquet Preem Palver). – LSerni May 29 '15 at 15:44
  • @lserni - That wouldn't shock me in the slightest. Eric appears to be a huge fan of "Golden Age" Scifi, and has even gotten some of it republished. – T.E.D. May 29 '15 at 15:52
1

In Finnish palaveri, not very surprisingly derived from the English palaver, is widely used as a somewhat informal synonym for a meeting, and I believe the Danish have derivation of it too.

I personally notice from time to time palaver being used to describe a prolonged discussion by some Scandinavian people when they discuss in English, likely because of the familiar derived word in their mother tongue.

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    To clarify: I was referring to English in the context of Scandinavia, for which the mention of the derivation of the words in Finnish and Danish was needed, hence the answer's focus being on how palaver appears in English, not explicitly how it appears in Finnish or Danish. Also, if the question was 'Is "palaver" still in use? (If so, in what part of the world is it used?) In what sense is it used?', I would like to know how am I not answering the question (not meaning to offend anyone, just curious)? – V-J May 30 '15 at 17:21
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    @V-J In all fairness, technically "it" in the second paragraph refers to "palaveri", not "palaver", so it can easily be misconstrued as if the entire answer is about the Finnish word "palaveri". However, when reading between the lines I think it becomes clear what you mean which is why I too oppose the critical comments. – user77220 May 30 '15 at 22:30
  • @Pickett Yeah now that you mentioned of it, I now saw how the second paragraph could have been misleading, and the description of in what sense palaver is used was too vaguely implied, so I clarified the paragraph to hopefully convey the point better. – V-J May 31 '15 at 7:33
0

In Danish, 'palaver' officially means

confused, incoherent and frequently loud discussion, negotiaion or similar.

As a sub-meaning is included a more informal, festive setting - which is the way I've come to know the word used in Danish. (Although it is very infrequently used these days.)

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