Word of the day: palaver

During my trip to Norilsk last week, I managed to squeeze in a day trip to Dudinka, a small port town situated on the mighty Yenesei River that’s mainly used to ship out the nickel which is found in such abundance in the area. We had a brief guided tour of the town and then went to a pizza place for lunch. I liked the look of the salads and asked if it would be possible to get half a plate of one and half a plate of another. What then followed was a remarkable lesson in how to make something that you’d imagine should be very simple into something very complicated indeed. A plate was found and half-filled with salad, which was then tipped off the plate and into a plastic container, which was weighed. A small receipt of some kind was then generated and stuck on the side of my tray before the whole process was repeated all over again. What I’d expected to take a matter of seconds ended up taking almost five minutes. “What a palaver!” I exclaimed to no-one in particular, as I finally got my lunch back after all of this!

A palaver – /pəˈlɑːvə(r)/ – is how we often describe a situation that you expect to be simple, but which ends up involving an insane amount of fuss and bother. It becomes a right faff – a lot of unnecessary trouble!

It’s a word I often end up using on my travels. For instance, I’m due to give a talk somewhere which involves showing a video clip. Not, you might think, something that should be too much of a challenge in this day and age. On arriving at the venue, though, I learn that there are no speakers I can plug my laptop into. There’s a cable that links the TV screen we’re using to project the PowerPoint to the video recorder, but the plug is incompatible with my computer. A mild panic starts setting in and I start thinking about how I can improvise and work round the problem – a skill that I’ve become pretty good at after years of teaching in a range of quite complicated environments. Various people appear and prod the computer, turn things off and on again and unplug cables before plugging them in again. They then quietly sneak out of the room, looking slightly embarrassed about their inability to fix things. With only minutes to go before I’m supposed to start, someone suddenly produces a microphone from somewhere and we work out we can amplify the clips by holding it next to the small speaker on the laptop and plugging it into an ancient amplifier that has been gathering dust in the corner. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing. And it means the audience can more or less hear the videos!! What a palaver, though, eh! Things really shouldn’t be this difficult. Ah well. Such is life! Put it down to experience and get on with things! There’s no point letting it get you. After all, worse things happen at sea! Don’t they?

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  • What was the last experience you had which was a right palaver? Why?
  • Can you think of other things you’re surprised still happen in this day and age?
  • Are you good at improvising and working round problems?
  • Do you have any things that are currently gathering dust in the corner?
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