What a Palaver (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "What a Palaver"?

The saying "what a palaver" is used to describe chaos, disorganisation, over-complication, or unproductive busy activity. On its own, "palaver" means messing around or shenanigans.

The word "palaver" originates from the Portuguese word "palavra," which means word, speech, or talk. In the early 18th century, it was used in West Africa by Portuguese traders to mean "negotiating with the natives," which is where it was first heard and adopted by English sailors and traders.

So, initially, "palaver" simply meant "talk," but it soon came to mean "fruitless talk" or "too much talk." From this meaning, it morphed into its modern meaning. Of interest, "palaver" was often used in the plural "palavers," much like "talks" is used today. For example:
  • The delegation is in palavers with their leaders.
What a Palaver (Origin)

Examples of Use:

  • There was so much paperwork to bring the dog with us. Honestly, what a palaver!
  • Just tidy your room. I don't want any palaver.
  • (By itself, "palaver" means messing about or shenanigans.)
  • They've returned my passport. Let's get out of here. What a palaver!

Palaver or Palava?

The correct spelling is "palaver," which respects the "r" in the original Portuguese word as well as the [vowel]-r ending of Hispanic verbs and gerunds.

"Palava" is a common misspelling. Of note, Palava is a smart city located in Maharashtra state, India. It is also referred to as the City of Opportunity.

Palaver As a Verb

Although rare, "palaver" is also used as an intransitive verb that means "to discuss with much talk." Here are the five forms of "to palaver":
FormpalaverAlternative Name
Base FormpalaverInfinitive Form
The -S FormpalaversThird Person Singular Form
Past FormpalaveredSimple Past Tense
The -ING FormpalaveringPresent Participle Form
The Past Participle Formpalavered[no alternative name]
The verb "palaver" is a regular verb. (This means its simple past tense and its past participle are formed by by adding "-ed" or "-d" to the base form.)

Palaver As a Collective Noun

Of interest, "palaver" was used as the collective noun for politicians following the political upheaval that led to the high turnover of British Prime Ministers in 2022. "A palaver of politicians" works well for being alliterative and also the connotation of too much bluster and talk.

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See Also

What are idioms? What is figurative language? A list of common grammar errors A list of easily confused words A list of sayings and proverbs

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