Life with language is a parlous proposition. Every foray into a parlour for a parley with those present can be a precarious parlay. You have come out ahead so far in the competition of conversation, but one quick trick from a crafty, unscrupulous, captious interlocutor can upset the applecart.
Confidences in particular are prey to the parlour parlous: a joke, or a little bit of venting, can be taken at face value. In gambling parlours the risk of gambling with fake money is that it will be recognized as fake money. In conversation the risk is the opposite: of its being treated as real currency. All of a sudden you have made a bet that you have to pay out on, or your twitch or tie tug has become a bid at an auction.
But it can be simpler than that. The right word to the right ears and you have been trumped. There are some words that, among those who know them, are like the most expensive jeans: to you they look like ordinary jeans, but those who recognize the brand or cut know that they bespeak a higher socioeconomic status. Sometimes a word is like furniture with a craquelure finish. I remember seeing such things in the ’90s in a fancy furniture store in lower Manhattan. Why on earth would anyone want this scabby old vanity, I thought. I had grown up in the country and recognized cracked paint as a sign of something abandoned and on its way back to the dust from whence it came. But rich New Yorkers liked this finish, especially when it was fake. Turn up your nose at it? They will turn up their noses at you. And they have more money.
So, now, let us take a word as an example. Start with Latin periculosus, ‘causing fear’. Run it through French and into English back in medieval times. You get perilous. Very good: you can picture a trip on the Caminito del Rey, perhaps, or a ship on the high seas.
But now run that through lazy and relaxed mouths. Drop the i. Loll the tongue on the first vowel as though you’re some creaky-phonating young-adult girl doing the latest drawl despised by the older generations. Make it sound lower-class, like varmint instead of vermin. You get parlous.
But oops. Did you think parlous is a low-grade word? Oh, how can it be, when it sounds like parlour and parliament and French parler? And when it partakes of the same vowel shift as in parson, Darby, and Clark? No, no, no. This is a word that consciously erudite writers like to use when writing jeremiads about politics and finances: the parlous state of… or these are parlous times or or or. This is a word that writers who enjoy being eloquently unpleasant like to keep in their travel bags next to their tooth powder. Read enough A.A. Gill and you will be sure to see it.
Perhaps, then, it is apposite that parlous means not just ‘dangerous, uncertain, precarious’ but also ‘keen, cunning, clever, malicious’. What in Irish English is termed cute. But there is one more usage as well: ‘extreme, marvellous’ (or ‘extremely, marvellously, very’) – available as a positive intensifier too: “You’re parlous pretty.”
In short, this word has craquelure on it. The expensive kind. You would do well not to treat it or its speaker too lightly.
And, in sum, it can be parlous parlous to partake in a parlour parley with a parlous person.