I had never heard the word “palaver” before I came to Liberia. I heard someone refer to a “palaver hut,” which I soon learned is a traditional circular hut made from clay and bamboo or wood, with a thatched roof. In West African villages, it is traditionally where visitors are received. The location of the hut can be selected by the village elder, chief, or spiritual elder, and the villagers work together to construct the hut. And in the palaver hut, people palaver…
“Palaver” means a prolonged discussion or conference. Traditionally, villagers gathered in the palaver hut to discuss an issue until it was resolved. The dictionary also defines palaver as “a long parley, especially one between primitive natives and European traders, explorers, colonial officials, etc.” In fact, it seems that this is the original meaning of the word.
I looked into the etymology of palaver and, while it is widely used in Liberia and West Africa, it is not a Liberian or even an African word. “Palavra” means word in modern Portuguese and in early 18th century Portuguese it also meant talk or discussion. Early Portuguese traders on the West African coast (c. 1720-1730) used it to describe their negotiations or discussion with natives.
It was adopted by various West African pidgin languages to more broadly mean a discussion, argument, dispute, negotiation, etc. The place where such disputes were settled – the village hut – became known as the palaver hut.