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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

thoughts and prayers

(1970’s | journalese (politics) | “(heartfelt) good wishes,” “(heartfelt) condolences,” “deepest sympathy”)

In the U.S., and presumably in other countries as well, presidents and their administrations are a rich source of vocabulary. In my lifetime, Ronald Reagan has done the most of any president to augment the roster of expressions we reach for habitually. Yet this expression we owe to his predecessor Jimmy Carter — the first openly born-again president in living memory — who spent a lot of time talking about prayer and other Christian virtues. Less than two months after his inauguration, Carter told the family of the Rev. James Baker that they were “in my thoughts and prayers” after his passing. (Other Carter-era new expressions: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” “in the loop,” and partial credit for “human capital” and “workaholic.”) The Iran hostage crisis soon gave us more chances to throw around thoughts and prayers. In March 1981, when Reagan was shot, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau offered thoughts and prayers, and the phrase was well launched. It soon became clear that there were plenty of opportunities to express sympathy, the world being what it is, and that thoughts and prayers are a quick, easy way to do it. Something for everyone: Thoughts for the secular, prayers for the religious. It sounds solemn without being too lofty or high-toned. It sounds empathetic without smarm or gush.

Sounds noble but is also cheap and easy. That may explain why “thoughts and prayers” has become a can’t-miss incantation, the first resort and last refuge of anyone called upon to sympathize with sufferers from almost anything. (The victim must be worthy, of course; you don’t send thoughts and prayers to the survivors of Moammar Gadhafi upon his inglorious death.) Hurricane came through? Thoughts and prayers. Plane crash? Thoughts and prayers. High school shot up? Thoughts and prayers.

Broadly speaking, there are two different ways to convey thoughts and prayers, and the distinction is subtle but not insignificant. “In my thoughts and prayers” was standard originally, up until the mid-eighties, at least. Today, we are much more likely to send them — an active verb. This gives the impression of doing more than dispensing ritual sympathy, but it also changes the target. When someone says, “You are in my thoughts and prayers,” it means that person is thinking about you and giving God a reminder that you need help. When the same person sends thoughts and prayers, it’s more like directing mental energy toward those who need it. That sneaks in the implication that you are taking positive action, when in fact, all you are doing is making a gesture that, if not entirely empty, requires little effort and has little effect. Norman Vincent Peale thought that “the human brain can send off power by thoughts and prayers,” but such a postulate was essential to the gospel of positive thinking. No one nowadays thinks they will do any good beyond making some of the intended recipients feel better. And making the sender look better.

There has been some pushback lately against the “thoughts and prayers” mantra after mass shootings; many people no longer feel shy about observing that such invocations, however well-meant, have done nothing to prevent or eliminate them. It’s a fair point, one seized upon by right-wingers to protest yet another attack on religion. Hardly. That mass shootings have become more frequent and destructive despite an ever-increasing volume of thoughts and prayers is an indisputable observation that does not require irreligious tendencies. If defenders of religion want the rest of us to show their particular god(s) more respect, they need to come up with one who does some visible good, the kind you don’t have to be a convert to see.

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