Thursday, March 10, 2011


I'm not entirely sure, but I believe that it was in this very interesting article on the present state of publishing that I once again came across the phrase 'parlous times'. It comes up every now and again, and it illustrates one of the ways I and I suppose other people deal with unknown words or concepts they run across in a book or article. Maybe it's different for Kindle readers, who apparently have some kind of dictionary function, but I kind of doubt it. I think it's more typical that we simply make our best guess. Sure, it's lazy, but it also shows something about our deductive capacities.

Anyway, for better or worse, I always read 'parlous' as 'perilous'. I know it's a stretch, and I suppose it will turn out to be hugely wrong, but it does more or less work as far as I can tell. Still, it seems unlikely that the two words are the same words, just differently spelled. So what can 'parlous' be? If it doesn't have to do with peril, the closest I can come up with is the French parler, which means 'to speak, talk'. Doesn't seem quite right...

Quelle chance! It is perilous. It's simply the way those 14th century Middle English types contracted the word 'perillous', borrowed from the Old French perillous. 

Dangerous, anyway you look at it. 

( Oh, yeah, the picture is by James Gillray, a British cartoonist, whose satires of British and French society were published between 1792 and 1910.)

And now,  Team Parlous:


  1. And no, I did not invent my interest in the word just to show this video...

  2. I've always liked parlous, especially in combination with state. Like you, I associated it with perilous but suspected they were not related, at least not closely. Like you, I was wrong.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  3. Boy, am I glad to know that I was not the only one.

    It is a good word.

  4. Parlous's humble derivation from perillous is a lesson: Sometimes words are born through contraction, mispronunciation and misunderstanding. This makes them more human, I think,

    V-word: gidion

  5. Now I will be waiting for Kenneth on 30 Rock to say "parlous." Whoa! Those guys had a lot of fun running and jumping around, but, yeesh, and ouch. I watched the bloopers and all. I think that is a true middle school education, eh? To know the school and environment that well, to make the movie, add the credits, anticipate the audience's needs. I love how the actual name of the school is obscured by trees.

  6. Peter, yes, although you might think I'd be disappointed that parlous doesn't turn out to mean something very different and surprising, I actually liked the simplicity of how we come to have two words in English that mean the same thing.

    Kathleen, I think I'm fortunate not to have watched the outtakes. Though I live this life as an out of shape middleaged woman, my soul is Parkour.

  7. Seana,

    My son loves parkour, and even before watching that video, I think I know which one it is. Thanks for giving me a new word to describe his parlous interest.

  8. Seana, that's like the oft-noted phenomenon by which the same word appears in English under different guises: shirt from Old English, skirt from Old Norse.

  9. Glenna, I even did a book review on Parkour not so long ago.

    That said, though, I have admit that my non-Parkour side was coming out today. There was guy in the store, maybe 6'2" or 3" and he'd been hanging out awhile. When started toward the back, I saw him do a running somersault down the aisle. Although he said, "Sorry", he did another the next minute.

    It was totally Parkour and it totally annoyed me.

  10. Peter,

    Whuh? Shirt and skirt are the same thing?

  11. Parallel evolutions of the same word into two different but related meanings.

  12. Thanks, yes, I got it, but hadn't heard of it before. Pretty interesting.