Monday, February 25, 2008

Imprecation



Dan from Cincinnati asked about the word imprecation. It’s generally used as a synonym for a curse; you’re calling down evil upon an enemy. It seems to have been formed from the verb to imprecate, which is not quite as clear-cut: imprecate means both to pray for something positive and to call down evil upon a person.

The source is the Latin precari, to pray, plus the prefix im-, which is a form of in-, in or upon. So to imprecate is to call in the aid of a deity. The one making the request is the imprecator, and he’s behaving in an imprecatory manner.

Precation seems to be more positive and benign: it means prayer, supplication, or entreaty. In grammar, precative refers to a verb that expresses entreaty or a request. In law, the words in a will that express the wish that a particular action be taken are precatory.

To deprecate is to pray for deliverance from evil. Outside the arena of prayer, it means to express strong disapproval of a plan of action. Deprecation is both a prayer for averting evil and an expression of feeling against a practice.

The Oxford English Dictionary points out that the phrase self-deprecating (putting oneself down) is widely considered incorrect; it should be self-depreciating, says the OED. But it’s not quite that simple; experts line up on both sides. Bryan Garner (Modern American Usage) concludes, “However grudgingly, we must accord to [self-deprecating] the status of Standard English.” Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage points out that self-deprecation is now the more common term, having supplanted the earlier self-depreciation.

SIDEBAR: Imprecation, the death metal band

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