Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 21, 2016

Etymology: In the Parlor

Not far from me, along Pacific Coast Highway, a recently closed restaurant is being remodeled as another southern California restaurant chain of long standing. The new restaurant is termed a “pizza parlor.”

That, to me, sounds like a phrase from my childhood. Only certain businesses operate in parlors: ice cream parlors* (Gay ’90s-era), beauty parlors (also with a hint of the 50s) and tanning parlors among them.

In British English, of course, the word is typically “parlour.” Same word.

“Parlor” itself isn’t used that commonly in contemporary speech or writing. If someone invites you to “come into the parlor,” you expect the sentence to end “and set a spell.” Aunt Polly probably stuck Tom and Huck in the parlor to try to keep those scalawags civilized. If you want to write a story set in an earlier era, there’ll be a parlor in the heroine’s grandmother’s house. The word evokes that quaint air of a scene from “The Music Man.” People in River City, Iowa had parlors. Today we have living rooms or media rooms or something else. Same room, different nomenclature.

As regular readers know, minor epiphanies often occur here as the Under Western Skies editorial team encounters words or phrases that jump out of their context and cause us to ask, “Where does that word come from?” Often the discussion is at the breakfast table. This one was in the car on PCH.

I thought I immediately had a grasp of the origin of “parlor” and how it arrived in English. However, I often think that about a word and am proven wrong. It was off to the dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary provided most of the necessary information. The original sense of parlor signified a room in a house dedicated to entertaining guests. The Oxford English Dictionary adds that it sometimes signified (in a mansion with lots of rooms or in a tavern) a small room intended for private conversation.

OED also says that the association of the word with commercial joints is primarily American, and that there used to be a lot of “parlors,” including oyster parlors, photographic parlors, tonsorial parlors, etc.

The word entered English some time in the 14th Century with a variety of spellings, the most common something like parlur. Chaucer used it in Troilus and Creseyde c. 1380Like innumerable other Middle English words, it arrived via an Old French word, parler, immediately telling you about all you need to know about the meaning: “to speak.” A parlor is a place where people gather to talk. It arrived in French via Italian and before that, Latin parabolare, also “to speak.” There’s an earlier Greek word which ultimately is derived from an Indo-European stem, but I’m over my head at this point.

French still has a related word, parloir, which my Cassell’s French  Dictionary tells me primarily signifies rooms for meeting visitors in convents or schools. I invite any gloss from readers more fluent in French than I. As James Joyce wrote, “Wipe your glosses with what you know.”

Regular reader, former colleague and fellow musician Bill B. wrote from Australia to remind me that “parlor” was adopted into several other terms to denote luxury, refinement. One notable one was a “parlor car” on trains.

Here is Bill’s gloss:

The other significant use of parlor in American English is in the term “parlor car”…. meaning a railroad or interurban car with luxurious plush seating and a greater level of overall passenger comfort/amenity than mere “coach” seating. Parlor car service was at a premium fare and often involved a light meal service to the passenger seat. Parlor cars ran as the last car in a train and often had an observation window or open deck at the rear.

A word surviving from our ur-language: Adopted and adapted, now an intentional continuation of a term of business from an earlier era as “pizza parlor” for a chain of restaurants themed to evoke a halcyon time in American history. Those “pizza parlors are staffed by waiters wearing straw boaters and striped vests while Dixieland music plays in the background. Ain’t language great?

Any “parlors” in your town? In your past? In your house? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2016. Sources: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., Houghton Mifflin, 2000; The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1971; Cassell’s French-English English-French Dictionary, Macmillan, 6th printing, 1981.

*Thanks to brother Robert for reminding me of ice cream parlors, which I originally omitted, despite the fact that my home town has a relatively famous one, having featured in that monster big-screen hit, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” Barbara Eden herself sat right there in the Village Ice Cream Parlor!


  1. My first thought was thanks to the Pirates of the Carribean movies where the request to “parley” is a part of the Pirate Code that enables one to discuss terms and at least temporarily delay a horrible fate. One might picture a Pirate’s ship then having a room or cabin that serves as the parley parlor. Or maybe not.
    The old fashioned Ice Cream Parlor from our hometown also comes to mind.


    • How could I have omitted ice cream parlor? Arrrrr, thanks, matey!


    • I’ve added ice cream parlor to the post. Thanks.


  2. I started to get a little Shakey as I read this.


    • You got it. Interestingly, there are far more Shakeys in the Philippines than in the U.S. Thanks, Tom.


  3. Fun post. Makes me think of Queen Victoria, Jane Austen novels, parlor games –– and parlor maids in fancy aprons and caps, whose specific duties were to attend to the parlor, wait on guests and answer the door.


    • I have such well-versed readers. I may have to put up a second post about parlor-related terms. Easy for me: All my readers have done the work for me. Grazie, Counselor.


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