Wednesday, 8 July 2020


Nu to Yu Thrift Store on Pender Island

I came upon a new word this morning, well, new to me, anyway, like the clothes at the Pender Island Thrift Store.

It was in a column in the Guardian.

In the last few years, Lynn Steger Strong has built a wide audience with her compelling essays ... about the precarity that can coexist with privilege in America, indictments of a country where getting an education or having a child or a long illness can in an instant turn a stable financial situation to an unstable one.

I would have used “precariousness” myself. But a search revealed that “precarity” appears in an article in the Guardian every month or so, and seems to apply particularly to the precarious existence endured by people without job security in uncertain financial times. Another word has arisen to describe this particular social class: the precariat. As Hamlet would have said about both these new words: On horrible, oh horrible, most horrible!

The word “precarious” comes from the Latin adjective, precarius, meaning “obtained by entreaty or prayer”, and I suppose that if you are clinging to a cliff in a precarious position, you may well entreat divine intervention. The word “prayer” itself comes from the same root. But the noun “precarity”, meaning the state of being precarious, is a neologism, not to be found in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary of 2004.

Almost any adjective can form a noun ending in “-ness”, meaning the state of being that adjective, even if it’s a bit cumbersome, like “precariousness”. Less awkward are the nouns ending in -ity like loquacity instead of loquaciousness, or ambiguity rather than ambiguousness. Analogous with these is “precarity” instead of “precariousness”.

The word has found its way into contemporary dictionaries, but only time will tell if it will survive. I don’t think the noun will be used often enough or widely enough. The adjective will always be necessary to describe someone in a difficult emotional or physical or financial position, barely hanging on. It’s a great word — precarious — almost onomatopoeic, its polysyllabicity, with the stress on the long, harsh second syllable, almost reinforcing the meaning. And if we need the noun, precariousness stretches out the predicament — barely hanging on, heart thumping, nails scratching the rock — whereas precarity leaves us unmoved. It's a word without flesh and blood, coined by an academic who likes words to be neat and tidy.

1 comment:

  1. For a French person this word is well known "précarité" and the meaning the same :-) , so in fact it is easier to remember than precariousness! Thanks Charles for adding an English word in my vocabulary.