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shameless pleading

Vicarious

Please do not taunt the Panopticon, Citizen.

Dear Word Detective: Did the word “vicarious” derive from a vicar who got his pleasures sharing the lives of others? — Bob.

No, that sounds more like the NSA. By the way, your use of the phrase “the lives of others” reminded me of a truly great 2006 film by the same title (“Das Leben der Anderen” in German) about the Stasi (Ministry for State Security), the secret police in East Germany. The Stasi made the NSA look like pikers; they had people being interrogated sit in chairs which collected their “personal scents” in special cloths hidden in the seat, which were then stored in thousands of meticulously-indexed glass jars. The theory was that the scent-cloths could later be used, via trained hounds, to find the person. Such bizarre and antiquated methods disappeared, of course, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today we have smartphones, which at least allow us to watch movies on our scent-cloths.

Oh right, you had a question. No, our modern English word “vicarious” was not derived from “vicar,” although the words are closely related.

“Vicar” is the older of the two words, first appearing in print in the early 14th century. The basic sense underlying “vicar” is “substitute” or “one acting in place of another,” and it entered English from the Anglo-Norman “vicare,” (proxy or substitute) based on the Latin “vicarius,” meaning “substitute” (from Latin “vicus,” meaning “change, place or position”).

Almost all uses of “vicar” since it entered English have been in religious contexts, primarily in the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Episcopal churches. The general sense has been “proxy” or “representative.” In the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, the Pope has historically been referred to as “the Vicar of Christ.” Most uses of “vicar” in a religious sense have been, however, a bit further down the organizational food chain. A “vicar” may be simply a priest, or a priest’s assistant, or a priest who receives a stipend from the parish but does not share in the parishoners’ tithes. A vicar may also oversee areas of church operations as the representative of a higher authority, such as a bishop. In secular use, “vicar” is usually applied to someone acting as the delegated agent of a supervisory authority.

To find the etymological connection between “vicar” and “vicarious,” you have to go all the way back to that Latin “vicarius,” which is both an adjective and a noun and means “substitute.” In English, “vicarious” (which first appeared in the 17th century) first meant “taking the place of another person or thing,” whether describing an action done for the benefit of another person (e.g., “vicarious labor” done by one person in place of another) or one person taking credit for the accomplishment of another. The modern use of “vicarious” to mean “experienced by imagining the feelings or experience of another” dates only to the 1920s (“For many of us, who grew up listening to the Stones, there’s still a vicarious buzz in seeing the old codgers behaving badly.” Daily Mail (UK), 5/27/14).

1 comment to Vicarious

  • Tim Martin

    So good, your gloss on the etymology of ‘vicarious’. Said it all in a few entertaining, informative and above all bit possible-faced or condescending terms. Hats off. Here’s how it was: the word vicarious came into my mind, I realised I had no idea of its etymology even though it’s a word I like, so I searched on ‘etymology of vicarious’ and came up with your site — which I like and will bookmark. Tim Martin

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