“My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those killed and wounded,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) said about Sunday night’s mass shooting in Las Vegas. “All of those affected are in our thoughts and prayers,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “Thoughts & prayers for #LasVegas victims and their family members,” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) chimed in.
Thoughts and prayers. It’s the stock phrase of tragedies, like “condolences” for a death, “congratulations” for a wedding, and either one (depending) for a divorce.
As common as it is, not everyone likes the phrase. Many people see it as a substitute for real action — “thoughts and prayers are simply not enough,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said Monday — or even sometimes a smoke screen for having been part of the cause. Screenwriter John Brownlow calls it “the verbal equivalent of tossing a panhandler the smallest coin in your pocket.” There’s a website, “Thoughts and Prayers: The Game,” that invites you to try to stop mass shootings using thoughts and prayers. (You don’t succeed.) But let’s set all that aside for now. The question no one seems to ask — except, one time on Twitter, by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post — is why it’s not “prayers and thoughts.”
Why indeed? If you look in Google Books, you will find that the ratio of thoughts and prayers to prayers and thoughts has been at least 10 to one since before the year 1800. It’s become a common collocation, like peanut butter and jelly (who has jelly and peanut butter?) or in and out (you rarely see out and in). Saying it in the other order is about as comfortable as lacing your fingers together with the wrong hand on top. It’s just the way it is — and has been for more than two centuries. But it must have gotten that way for a reason!
Some people make the case on the basis of rhythm. “Thoughts and prayers,” they say: “dah-dum dah-dum — the ‘and’ mimics to the ‘-ers’ in prayers. If it were ‘prayers and thoughts’ it would be dah-dum-dum-dah.” This would be a reasonable argument if it were true. But for those who first used the phrase, and for most people who use it now, it’s dah-dum-dah, full stop. Prayers is one syllable (unless you mean “people who pray”). That’s …read more