“How come the word ‘prayer’ has no ascenders at all?” asks Jim Taylor.

I am immediately put in mind of Claudius’s lines from Hamlet: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” But of course the written form of prayer reaches only to the roots and not to the branches regardless of the sincerity of intention. Not that here is necessarily the right place to debate the up-is-Heaven-down-is-Hell schematization. I do remember that my mother at least used to have a plaque or poster that read “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads,” a quote from Henry David Thoreau. And Laurie Anderson starts and ends her song “Language Is a Virus” with the aphorism (which I have always liked) “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now only much much better.”

Well, in any event, the form of this word is adventitious – regardless of how sincere the prayer of the pray-er, no matter whether, deep in the heart, there is a “why” (a y), no matter whether the prayer contains a ray of hope, and no matter whether the oral gesture of it involves the tongue in a full wave of prostration (“pray-er”) or merely a slight distancing and return (our usual “prer”), it all just happened to be so, the result of accumulated linguistic acts and facts that occurred without reference to this particular word. As with so many things, the karma runs over the dogma.

But, say, now, why is it that the noun for what you make when you pray is prayer? Shouldn’t prayer be the one who prays? Well, in fact, there is also a word prayer – often written pray-er for clarity – that means “one who prays”, but our usual word prayer does not involve the usual er agentive suffix. No, it has simply been polished down by the flowing river of time, over the centuries and by way of French, from post-classical Latin precaria.

Does that word look a little familiar? Prithee consider this situation: You are a king, and you have gained the kingship by offing your brother. Now your nephew knows you did it, and so your position is precarious: you are become prey, and must next prey on him. You will not do so without uttering precations and imprecations, however – though you may find your precations are imprecise and so will proceed unappreciated, and your imprecations simply impotent. So now, pray tell: what words are related?

Prey, that closest, best pun, is not. It’s from a different root altogether (Latin praeda). But precarious and precation – and imprecation – are. We can understand the connection with imprecation – although it’s often used now in phrases such as uttering imprecations to mean “swearing”, that is a bit imprecise. Precaria meant “entreaty, petition, request” (and the general “request” sense has persisted in pray tell and other frozen archaisms), and certainly deities were often the ones being asked. Precation is just prayer. With imprecation, one is asking for evil to come down on another, so “To hell with you!” counts, but “You stupid jerk!” does not.

But, now, what could prayer possibly have to do with a position of poise on the point of a pinnacle? We know, don’t we, that a precarious position is one where one might fall at any time, and that precariously tends to go with balanced? In fact, the original sense of the word would not even have included situations where one is at the whim of forces not susceptible to reason or persuasion. It meant that one was in one’s state at the whim or pleasure of another – that one was a suppliant, entreating the other. To be a tenant at will was to be precarious.

But senses shift, and the sense of uncertainty has been retained while the sense of volitional caprice on the part of another has largely been lost. Still, though, however inhuman the forces, many will appeal to a superhuman other when in a precarious position. And we may feel sure the prayer will be sincere – or at least the desperation will be – whether the word flies up or reaches down, and whether the thoughts should reach out or go within, flail like branches (as they often do) or dig deep for water and strength.

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