By Peter Gilliver, OED

A century is not that long in the history of the English language. Over that kind of timescale words do of course acquire new nuances, and new meanings, but it’s relatively unusual to come across a word whose core meaning—what most people would understand by it—has shifted significantly since it was first included in the OED. That’s why precarious is such an interesting word to revise, because it seems to have undergone just such a shift: not that huge a shift, perhaps, but a significant one.

Ask most people what they mean by ‘precarious’, and they will probably say something about physical instability; they may suggest something like ‘rickety’, or ‘liable to fall or collapse’. They may well be familiar with usages like ‘a precarious existence’, but they may perceive that these derive from the ‘physical instability’ sense, by the use of metaphor. However, it turns out that the word has quite different origins. The Latin word precarius means ‘given as a favour’, or ‘depending on the favour of another person’; and the earliest meaning of the English word precarious relates to the idea of being given something—the right to occupy land, or to hold a particular position—‘at the pleasure of’ another person, who might simply choose to take it back at any time.

The first edition of the OED recorded this sense, with a first quotation of 1646; further research has traced it back a little, to 1638. (There’s also a slightly older term with the same sense, precary, recorded from 1606 but apparently only used in the seventeenth century.) From this it’s quite easy to see how a more general sense could develop, in which dependency on another person’s pleasure or whim was replaced by dependency on chance or circumstance. This was in use already before the end of the seventeenth century: both the original and the revised OED entry give a 1687 quotation referring to ‘the Exercise of our established Religion’ as precarious. And it’s easy enough to see the development from being dependent on chance—at risk, in other words, of disaster—to being at risk of some kind of physical collapse or accident. So we arrive at the modern meaning, now defined in the revised entry as: ‘Subject to or fraught with physical danger or insecurity; at risk of falling, collapse, or similar accident; unsound, unsafe, rickety’, with evidence beginning in 1727, and now continuing down to a nice, typical quotation from 2002 about climbing ‘precarious steps’.

But what’s really interesting is that some of this same evidence was there in the original entry—but without the modern interpretation. The 1727 quotation referred to ‘Navigation’ (through some rocky shoals) as being ‘very precarious’, and there was a quotation about a ‘precarious track through the morass’; but the definition made no mention of physical instability, but only of danger: ‘Exposed to danger, perilous, risky’.

Since that OED entry was first written—in about 1907—it has become much more common to use precarious with specific reference to physical instability: so much so that we now choose to characterize this strand of meaning with an explicit definition, and to interpret even that original 1727 quotation as containing the seeds of this modern use. For the original compilers, the idea of physical instability had not yet become the typical, core meaning of precarious; but from our later viewpoint we can now see that this forms a new component of the developing history of the word, and one that the OED3‘s revised entry captures clearly.

Where next with the OED Online?

  • The Historical Thesaurus of the OED includes 18 entries synonymous with the definition of precarious as ‘subject to or fraught with physical danger or insecurity … unsound, unsafe, rickety: these include jeopardous (1451), chanceful (1591), risky (1813), and nervy (1897).

How do I search for this? The Historical Thesaurus of the OED now forms part of the OED Online. With subscriber access, you can browse the Thesaurus for words—from Old English to the present-day—connected in meaning throughout the history of the language. You can also link from OED senses to the Historical Thesaurus to find appropriate synonyms: just click on the button to the right of a definition, as here for risky. You can also read more about the Thesaurus and what it can tell us about language and history.

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