parable (n.)    mid-13c., parabol, modern form from early 14c., "saying or story in which something is expressed in terms of something else,"
from Old French parable "parable, parabolic style in writing" (13c.),
from Latin parabola "comparison,"
from Greek parabole "a comparison, parable," literally "a throwing beside," hence "a juxtaposition," from para- "alongside" (see para- (1)) + bole "a throwing, casting, beam, ray," related to ballein "to throw" (see ballistics).

Replaced Old English bispell. In Vulgar Latin, parabola took on the meaning "word," hence Italian parlare, French parler "to speak" (see parley (n.)).

To connect word to the syntagma para- + bole, I guessed the sad possibility that an illterate may just recklessly throw or cast words alongside each other. But my guess appears wrong, because parabola had already evolved to mean 'comparison'. My 2nd guess is that words can be used for comparison, but this connection seems too faint. Maybe I erred again.

So would someone please explain? I heed the Etymological Fallacy. But what are some right ways of interpreting the etymology, to make it feel reasonable and intuitive?

  • 2
    If you can read French: wiktionary and cnrtl entries both point at a calque from Hebrew "pārehāl" (?). Etymology is not always semantic anyway. May 25, 2015 at 4:48
  • 1
    It seems clear to me that the sequence is "parable" -> "story" -> "words".
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 9, 2015 at 23:13
  • My amateur interpretation for this etimology said to me that a parabole is a non right movement, it is a curved one. This make sense for any use of not literal language.
    – Masacroso
    Jun 11, 2015 at 3:55
  • You will find here english.stackexchange.com/q/175756/73094 what the rhetoric parable has in common with the mathematical parabola. Mar 3, 2016 at 0:44

1 Answer 1


There is a parallel double-borrowing from Greek with amphibolum.(my emphasis)

Amphibolia (Cic), amphibolum, id. quod,
Amphibologia ....An ambiguity, an equivocation; when a sentence may be construed two ways citing Terence and Quintillian. (Ainsworth, main thesaurus.)

Classical borrowing from Greek, rhetorical terms.
In late Latin this word is given in Ainsworth 'Voces' dialects, late usage.

Amphibalum =amphibolum a loose garment, enveloping the body from every side Voss.

For the physical meanings of parabola or amphibolum the throwing is physically up/against or around. But in rhetoric it is not so much the words, as the meanings that are thrown up against each other, or entangled with each other.
The Greek rhetorical use is certainly first century.

  • 1
    How is this an answer to the question?
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 8, 2015 at 23:06
  • 1
    @Colin Fine. It seems to me an analogous process. ραραβολα : parable (lit) parole (meton) :: Αμφιβολή : amphiboly (lit) amphibalum (a casting net/ a loose garment (meton). In each case the metamorphosis takes place in medieval Latin.
    – Hugh
    Jul 9, 2015 at 1:47
  • @ColinFine To user 'Hugh' too: +1. Thanks. Your answer helps me understand how para- + bole evolved to mean "saying or story in which something is expressed in terms of something else". However, did you explain how `parabola took on the meaning "word"? I'm still confused because the noun 'word' is straightforward; so nothing's thrown up or against each other.
    – user5306
    Jul 12, 2015 at 20:52
  • Would you please respond in your answer, which is easier to read than comments?
    – user5306
    Jul 12, 2015 at 20:53

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