It might be said that an unfortunate soul in a precarious situation “doesn’t have a prayer.” But who knew that the words precarious & prayer are kissing cousins (etymologically speaking)?
Their common ancestor is *prek-, Proto-Indo-European for ask or request. In time it became the Latin word precari, to beg, entreat, or ask earnestly. By the 1200s precari made its way into English (after a brief sojourn in France) as pray. Initially, pray meant simply to ask earnestly or beg. Within the next hundred years it began to mean pray to a god or saint.
During its stay in Latin, precari developed another form, precarius, a legal term meaning held through the favor of another (based on the idea that one might beg or entreat another for help). This form came to English about 1640. Because dependence on another can be risky business, by 1680 this legal term gained common usage meaning risky because of one’s dependence on others. Linguistic sticklers argue that precarious continues to have only this original meaning, & that most of us misuse the poor word. However, modern dictionaries idenitfy 4-5 generally risky definitions before listing the meaning dependent on others under the heading “archaic.”
Prayer & precarious — kissing cousins.
In the comments section I’d love to hear whether any of you knew about this connection. It certainly surprised me.
Thanks to this week’s sources, Etymonline.com, the OED, Merriam-Webster, Collins English Dictionary,& Wordnik.com.Image from Killapocolypse.deviantart.com.
I write for teens & tweens, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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