What a palaver!

I was walking down Roman Road in east London when I heard someone say something that made me smile. Roman Road, with its thriving street market and tight local community, is one of the most authentically Cockney places left in the capital. You’ll hear plenty of rhyming slang, strong accents and see market traders that would put Del Boy to shame.

It was amongst this crowd that I heard a throaty shout from a middle-aged stall holder: “oh, what a palaver!”, with her last word stretched with a long middle ‘a’ sound for extra emphasis. This seems the natural home of the word but it has travelled well, becoming an established part of Mockney and Thames Estuary vocabularies.

The deep jungle villages and tiny fishing ports of Sierra Leone and Liberia are far, far removed from E3. So it is surprising to find out that the word palaver enters English from these remote west African spots. I came across this reading Tim Butcher’s excellent book ‘Chasing the Devil’. Butcher retraces Graham Greene’s path through the jungle trails of these two African states and notes that the gathering places in the villages are called Palaver Huts.

Here the etymology becomes more complicated and entwined with west Africa’s difficult colonial history. Early Portuguese traders would use it as a word to described discussions or negotiations with the natives. It retains this direct link to speech in Portuguese and Spanish – palavra and palabra mean word in both languages respectively, and originally had a sense extending to talk or discussion. The ultimate root word is the Latin parabola (which also supplies the English word ‘parable’).

The natives took a narrower interpretation, and in various Pidgin languages it emerged as a word for anything that needed arbitration – quarrels, disputes, misunderstandings and negotiations.  It was only natural, therefore, that the place that these disputes were settled would become known as the Palaver Hut.

If you can imagine the hubbub of different dialects, accents and languages that could be heard in a particularly fierce dispute, it becomes obvious how it came to mean a fuss or commotion, especially if it involved a tedious or unnecessary and drawn-out process. But how did it leap from the west African jungle to the streets of Tower Hamlets? This again links into our colonial and maritime past – the term appears to have been picked up by English seafarers in the early 18th century and to have passed from nautical slang to more common use by the later 19th century.

What a palaver!