Stand down, parler, this word is too good to debauch
Language is constantly in flux. Words come, words go, and sometimes their meaning changes altogether. Long gone are the days when I associated the word “gay” with being happy, dancing around the room and singing one of my favorite songs from the musical Camelot. When you leave your home country as I did, you must also pay close attention to language changes that happen in your absence, causing you to call a club by its 1980s name: disco. Then the advent of the internet brought about the expression “brick and mortar” to denote a physical store rather than an online merchant.
I now discover to my dismay that a favorite word has been hijacked: parler, now the name of an app for right-wing extremists. It is hard to believe that such a delightful word is likely to become associated with something entirely different than a whole host of previous, positive connotations.
In my mind, “parler” calls up memories of my eighth-grade French teacher, Mrs. Brown, scurrying to and fro before the classe asking Quel temps fait-il? or cajoling us into repeating Moi, j’habite rue de Rivoli. These pleasant recollections are then slowly crowded out by less favorable thoughts of the intricacies of French grammar: passé composé, subjonctif and the linguistic back handsprings required to match up genders, not just to adjectives but sometimes even to past participles…but no! At this point, I force myself to stop. French class. I liked French class!
The word “parlor” also comes to mind, spelled differently but pronounced the same. It triggers magical memories of the only proper ice cream parlor I knew growing up: Connor’s in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, about a 30-minute drive from my hometown. It featured elegant wrought-iron chairs complemented by matching tables with glass tabletops straight out of the penguin scene in Mary Poppins. On one visit there, my boyfriend Chuck, a big guy, scarfed down his entire chocolate fudge sundae — three scoops of ice cream, whipped cream, nuts and a cherry — and then flat out ordered a second one. The waitress duly noted his order straight-faced and without flinching, making this unusual indulgence even funnier.
It would be tantalizing to test the reactions of random waitresses with odd orders like this one or better yet, with wild, wacky combinations. Let them try to keep a straight face when I order gravy with my salad, ketchup with my pancakes (which apparently my grandfather actually liked) or a deep-fried Mars bar. Don’t laugh — the Scots actually eat this! On second thought, do laugh. The Scots are used to it by now and unless you’re English, they’re too far away to get you. Come to think of it, most of the menu items at Denny’s restaurant are bizarre in their sheer size alone, and somehow the waitresses there manage to serve plates piled high with mountains of food without batting an eye or stumbling from the weight. Maybe they trained by serving beer at the Oktoberfest.
But I digress.
The term “beauty parlor” is another expression I associate with fond memories of a 1960s family photo. My mother sports a helmet-like bouffant hairdo typical for the day. This she maintained at the beauty parlor on one of her weekly visits, which not only served to helmetize her hair but also enabled her to escape her sprawling brood for a few hours. That alone would have been reason enough to get your hair styled. By the time I was a teenager in the 1970s, nobody parlez-vous’d bouffant anymore. Waist-long hair like Cher’s and mine was in fashion, which my friend Lisa kept in shape by trimming it in her living room. Not until I restyled, Farah Fawcett-like, did I ever visit an actual beauty parlor.
Most vivid are the mental images of Victorian parlors, those symbols of status and wealth. High-ceilinged rooms with bold colored walls, filled with upholstery, drapes and corseted, tight-lipped ladies who sit straight-backed sipping tea served by servants in pinafores. These were rooms designated solely to entertain — and impress — guests, so only the best furniture was good enough for use here.
The parlor made its way across the Atlantic to the U.S., morphing into what became known as the sitting room, a term that drives home the notion of being on display and having no fun. Like the room in my girlfriend Suzy’s house: its couches were covered in plastic and they were never used. This was a true sitting room, for presentation purposes only and completely off limits for us. I could never figure that out, especially since the couches in our house had long since been trashed in the course of pillow fights, wrestling matches and games that involved illicit (and therefore all the more enjoyable) jumping from one couch to another. Foam rubber stuffing bulged from the seams and the surfaces were worn smooth from abuse. Not a bit parlorish, but infinitely more fun.
Another variant is “parley,” referring to when two parties negotiate on a political issue. This was the case following WWII when conferences were held to decide the fate of West Germany. Parley is associated with diplomacy which is in turn closely tied to France. This is only fitting since, as we have seen, it comes from the French parler, to speak. It traces its origins back to a French religious sect whose members took a vow of silence and were only allowed to speak in — you guessed it, the parlor.
And now the most recent usage of parler for an app circles right back to its original meaning. Its popularity among right-wing extremists may bring on a whole new assortment of unpleasant connotations. But I, for one, will not abide by this latest act of linguistic colonialism. I stand firm with ice cream sundaes, my proud mom in her bouffant hairdo, Victorian dames at teatime and even my senior picture with the 1970s hairdo that evokes peals of laughter from my daughters (and rightfully so).
I can’t help but wonder how different the world would be if people used a real parlor for talking instead of an app. An ice cream sundae probably wouldn’t hurt, either.
Originally published in www.expatchatter.net