Printable Version
Pronunciation: pahr-lês Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: 1. Precarious, touch-and-go, tricky, uncertain, as in 'the parlous state of the economy'. 2. Perilous, dangerous, hazardous, as in 'a parlous trip into the jungle'. 3. Shrewd, dangerously cunning, clever, mischievous, as in 'a parlous girl who needs watching'.

Notes: This word may be used by itself as an adverbial intensifier in the sense of "very, extremely", as in 'a parlous clever man', though it is rarely used this way because it also accepts the adverbial marker -ly, parlously. The noun is the expectable parlousness.

In Play: In the first sense of today's Good Word, we may talk in these terms: "The young democracies of the world are now in a parlous state at best." The fact that today's word may be used as an adverb without the -ly suffix makes sentences like this possible: "June McBride knew that Phil Anders was a parlous perilous man to be with."

Word History: Today's Good Word started out as a regional contraction of perilous, like fancy is a contraction of fantasy, and ornery is, of ordinary. Perilous was a French contraction of Latin periculosus "risky, dangerous" through Old French perillos—at which point English borrowed it—to Modern French périlleux. The Latin word was the adjective derived from periculum "trial, attempt", contrived by Latin from a suffixed form of another of the five Proto-Indo-European words per-, this one meaning "try, risk; danger". We see this word in Latin experior "to try, prove, experience" and Greek peira "trial, experiment, experience". The PIE [p] regularly became [f] in Germanic languages and there it is in German Gefahr "danger". The Old English word faer "danger, calamity" didn't make it to Modern English. (Lest we put ourselves in a parlous position, let's all thank Rob Towart for thinking of us when he ran across today's long lost Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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