In a Word: Of Parables and Parole

You might not connect the Gospels with the opportunity to leave prison, but ‘parable’ and ‘parole’ are etymological kin.

A pair of handcuffs on a Bible

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

A child’s moral upbringing can often include the telling of parables, fictional stories that illustrate life lessons and help children understand right and wrong. Unfortunately, some who don’t take those lessons to heart can later find themselves in legal trouble and on parole. Parable and parole might even be viewed as opposite sides of the same coin, and so it is etymologically as well: both words trace back to the same root.

The Greek parabole, meaning “comparison, juxtaposition,” is formed from the combination of para- “beside” and a form of ballein “to throw.” (Ballein is also the source of the English ballistics, the science of the motion of projectiles in flight.) Parabole literally means “to throw beside,” but even in ancient Greek times, the word took a more metaphorical meaning based on the idea of throwing one thing beside another for comparison.

Parabole became parabola in Latin. (How this word became the name of a geometric curve is another story entirely.) The Gospels are full of stories that are seemingly about one thing but that tell you about another. By the 4th century A.D., the Latin-speaking Church was calling these types of stories that convey truths through fictions parabola. This became the Old French parable, entered English as parabol in the late 13th century, and became parable in the 14th century.

However, the largely illiterate laity didn’t learn the parables of the Gospels by reading them; they were lessons given by the clergy in speeches. Parabola (something closer to paraula in Vulgar Latin) took on a broader meaning of “speech” and then just “word.” Further linguistic evolution led this to a number of places, including to the Old French parler “to talk” and the English words parlor and parliament.

And, of course, to parole, an old French word meaning “word, formal promise.” The military term parole d’honneur “word of honor” was a promise made by a prisoner of war not to flee or to take up arms in exchange for being granted a certain amount of liberty. When the shortened parole entered English in the 17th century, it was with this specific military meaning. Over time, its use expanded into civilian law enforcement into the parole of today, which none of us hope to ever have to deal with.

Featured image: NoonVirachada / Shutterstock

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