Let the prisoner “talk”: the origin of “parole”

Parole comes from the French for “word” or “speech.” 

After nine years in prison, OJ Simpson was granted parole on Thursday, releasing him early from his 33-year sentence for armed robbery. Parole comes with a strict set of terms, conditions, and supervision, of course, but it’s grounded, essentially, in the prisoner’s word of honor that they will uphold the law upon release. Word of honor—this is precisely where the term parole comes from.

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Parole, etymologically, is like a fable and, historically, dealt with prisoners of war. Walter Crane’s 1887 illustration of Aesop’s The Trumpeter Taken Prisoner. (Wikimedia Commons)

Conditions of parole

Parole dates back to the 17th century in English, when it specifically referred to a pledge given by a prisoner of war not to escape, return to custody if somehow released, and refrain from combat for an agreed-upon period time. This promise was called parole d’honneur in French, literally “word of honor,” and was given by oath. English borrowed this parole, according to Barnhart’s etymological dictionary, in the 1610s. The Oxford English Dictionary finds on parole in 1646, presumably on the basis of the French prisoner sur parole (“prisoner on parole”). Over time, parole was transferred from military custody to its modern, correctional use.

The French parole—“word, speech, formal promise,” hence the blustering character of Paroles in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That End’s Well—goes back to the Latin parabola, a “comparison.” This, as we saw in my recent discussion of ballistic, in turn comes from the Greek parabole, literally “thrown beside,” hence “juxtaposition.”

In antiquity, the Latin parabola and Greek parabole were specifically applied to Biblical parables (1250s), a word indeed so derived. Parables work allegorically—“by comparison,” etymologically speaking—imparting a lesson through the illustration of some story. The mathematical parabola, first dated in English in the 16th century, is due to Apollonius of Perga in the early 200s BC, who used it in a geometric sense of the “application” (“placing side-by-side”) of certain areas.

Talking the talk

Parabola, perhaps due to the influence of early Christianity, went on to become the common word for “talk” in the some Romance languages, e.g., the Italian parlare and the French parler. Various forms of the latter ultimately give English parliament, parley, and parlor. Palaver also originates in Latin’s parabola, and was apparently first used by Portuguese traders in West Africa as term for talking with locals.

And Spanish’s hablar, lest it feels left out? It comes from the same Latin root as fable (fari, “to speak”), which is like a parable. Like Aesop’s The Trumpeter Taken Captive, concerning a trumpeter who was captured in battle—and was granted no parole, as it were. Though the trumpeter wields no weapon, his captors tell him that blowing his trumpet, and thus encouraging men into the fray, is just as criminal. I guess we’re supposed to conclude that OJ…shouldn’t play the trumpet?

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