The Grammarphobia Blog

A devilish relationship

Q: My dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, seventh) has something odd in the entry for “parable.” It says the second part is related to “ballein” (to throw), but adds “more at DEVIL.” Please explain.

A: The entry in my newer Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has the same cross reference for “parable,” a story with a moral or religious lesson.

M-W says the word “parable” comes from the Greek parabole (comparison), which is derived from the Greek paraballein, to compare.

If you go to the entry for “devil” you’ll see that the word has its origins in the Greek diabolos (slanderer), which comes from diaballein (literally, to throw across).

The Greek ballein means to throw. The prefix dia means through or across, while para means beside, alongside of, beyond, aside from.

So “devil” (diabolos, from diaballein) and “parable” (parabole, from paraballein) have a common Greek ancestor, ballein.

Of the two English words, “devil” is by far the oldest, showing up around the year 800, spelled diobul and dioful, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The latecomer, “parable,” arrived four and a half centuries later.

And that’s the story.

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