prolonged and tedious fuss or discussion
This noun is first recorded in the early 18th century. Probably via early West African Pidgin, it is from Portuguese palavra, word, speech, from Latin parabola, meaning comparison, and in ecclesiastical Latin allegorical relation, from Greek παραβολή (= parabole), meaning, primarily, juxtaposition, comparison. (This Greek word, which is the origin of parabola and parable, is also the ultimate source of parlour, parlance, parley, parliament and parole.)
Portuguese traders used palavra for conversing with the local inhabitants of the west coast of Africa. English travellers and traders picked it up there, and palaver passed from nautical slang into colloquial use.
The noun palaver originally denoted, in West Africa, a dispute. For instance, the Royal African Company of England received the following letter, dated 8th March 1738, from Cape Coast in modern-day Ghana (the word caboceer, of Portuguese origin, designates the headman of a West African village or tribe — Eccoo is “the nearest Relation to the Deceas’d”):
You Censure James Hope for his Conduct in relation to Mrs. Phipps’s Affairs After her Death, by reason that it was Iniquitous & wou’d Involve The Company Probably in Palavers, To wᶜʰ we beg Leave To Ansʳ as follows [...]. The Caboceers, & Eccoo inform’d that he (Eccoo) & Mungo (another near Relation of the Deceas’d) because of the small Quantity of Gold that Appear’d to be in the Possession of Mrs. Phipps at her Death Apprehend’d, that a Great Deal had been burid there with her by her Servants in Order as they (Ecoo & Mungo) Suspect’d, when the ground shou’d at anytime be Open’d to bury a White Man, that the Sᵈ Gold was Intend’d to be Stole away. to remove wᶜʰ Suspicion they (Ecoo & Mungo) beg’d that the Grave Might be Open’d, in Order to Inspect into the Cofin; upon wᶜʰ James Hope Consult’d the Caboceers, whether or not they Apprehend’d any Pallaver might Ensue upon such an Action? They Assur’d him that there was no Danger Or Reason To Dread any Troublesome Consequence to result therefrom.
The word also denoted a conference between opposite sides in a dispute, in particular between tribespeople and European traders or travellers. For example, in A Voyage to Guinea, Brasil, and the West-Indies; In His Majesty’s Ships the Swallow and Weymouth (1737 edition), the naval surgeon John Atkins (1685-1757) wrote the following (Cape Corso designates Cape Coast):
Peter Anchicove, another Gold-taker of Cape Corso, assured me that being once at Succonda, a Fetish-Man met him, and demanded three Accys, which was given immediately on threatning: (the Gift on ordinary Occasions is less; a piece of Perpet, a Cap, a Fowl, or from a Market-Woman a Loaf of Canky.) And then he bid Peter leave the Voyage he was upon, and return home, for his Wife had in this Absence kept a scandalous Correspondence with several Men. Accordingly when he came home, he found it as the Fetish-Man had said, and a Palaaver being called, Peter recovered two Ounces of Gold Damage (the Punishment of Adultery) against one of the Offenders; an Ounce and a half of it to himself, the other half Ounce to the Court.
Two Scottish writers were among the first users of palaver in non-African contexts. Alexander Hamilton (1712-56), a doctor who settled in Maryland in 1738, wrote a travel journal edited by Albert Bushnell Hart as Hamilton’s Itinerarium: being a narrative of a journey from Annapolis, Maryland, through Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, from May to September, 1744 (published in 1907). On Saturday 25th August, Hamilton was in Connecticut, and used palaver to mean talk intended to wheedle:
I dined at Williams’s at Stonington with a Boston merchant named Gardiner, and one Boyd, a Scotch Irish peddler. The peddler seemed to understand his business to a hair. He sold some dear bargains to Mrs. Williams, and while he smoothed her up with palaver the Bostoner amused her with religious cant.
The other Scottish author was Tobias George Smollett (1721-71). In The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), the word means chatter:
When we came within sight of the French shore, one of the smugglers told me, I must pay for my passage.—To this declaration I replied, that my passage was none of my own seeking; therefore they could not expect a reward from me for transporting me into a strange country by force.—“Damme! (said the outlaw) none of your palaver; but let me see what money you have got.”
The same writer made Captain Crowe use palaver to mean discussion in The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (1762):
These two old piratical—had held a palaver with a lawyer—an attorney, Tom, d’ye mind me, an attorney—and by his assistance hove me out of my inheritance.
In A Master… of Fortune: Being Further Adventures of Captain Kettle (1899), by the British novelist Charles John Cutcliffe Wright Hyne (1866-1944), palaver has various significations. The word means someone’s business or concern in the following passage:
He was paid to be a pilot by the État Indépendant du Congo—so he said—and he was not going to risk a chance of trouble, and no possibility of profit, by meddling with matters beyond his own sphere. [...]
“It is not your palaver,” he said, “or mine.”
In the following, Cutcliffe Hyne makes Captain Kettle use palaver to mean problem:
“You should go home, or at any rate run North for a spell in Grand Canary. If you fool with this health-palaver any longer, you’ll peg out.”
Captain Kettle uses it in the sense of discussion in the following paragraph:
“This ship’s not too dangerous for me, and I choose to judge. And if she’ll do for me, she’s good enough for the crew I’ve got in your boat. Now I want them on deck, and at work without any more palaver.”
Cutcliffe Hyne does not always give palaver a precise meaning, as in the following:
“You’re sure it’s deliberate poisoning? [...] How’s it managed?”
“Don’t know. They have ways of doing these things in Africa which we white men can’t follow. [...] There’s only one cure, and that’s to be got at the place where the poisoning palaver was worked from.”
The French equivalent of palaver is the plural noun palabres. It is a borrowing from Spanish palabra, meaning word, speech, through the Africans who had traded with the Spaniards before trading with the French.