How 'thoughts and prayers' became the stock phrase of tragedies
A linguistic history
“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 why Madonna rhymed "It's like a little prayer" with "I want to take you there." It's why William Wordsworth in 1829 could write the couplet, "Along a scale of light and life, with cares / Alternate; carrying holy thoughts and prayers." Just check a dictionary to confirm this: The established pronunciation of prayer (and prayers) has one syllable — if there's a two-syllable version listed, it's an alternate.
So why, then? If prayers and thoughts has the same rhythm, what has kept thoughts and prayers the standard for so long? And not just in expressions of concern over a tragic event, but in mentions of pious devotion: "These high places were full of trees, and shady groves, which made them commodious both for the solemn thoughts and prayers of such as were devout," Thomas Stackhouse wrote in 1767; "the being whose happiness was the sole object of her thoughts and prayers," wrote Jane Porter in 1809. In 1849 a book for the pious was published under the title Holy Thoughts and Prayers. You won't find equivalents in prayers and thoughts.
But you also won't find thoughts and prayers in the Bible — the phrase doesn't turn up in any version that's been in common use. Nor will you find it in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer or any Roman Catholic liturgy, nor anywhere in Shakespeare. It sidled into use in the 1700s and caught momentum in the 1800s, peaking during and after the time of the Civil War, and it's been back on the upswing since the 1990s, when it was used on various occasions by President Clinton.
What you will find in the old Christian liturgies, however, is a set order of "thought, word, and deed," as millions of Catholics and Anglicans say during the penitential prayer. You get several mentions of words and deeds in the King James Bible: "mighty in words and in deeds" (Acts 7:22); "by word and deed" (Romans 15:18); "whatsoever ye do in word or deed" (Colossians 3:17). Only once (Luke 24:19) do you get the other order, "deeds and words."
Why does all this matter? Because it's a sequence from internal to external, from least to most effective in the real world. Thoughts stay in your head; words go out to others but don't by themselves move physical objects; deeds change the physical world. Where do prayers fit in this? They are words that can be meant to lead to effects in the physical world — so they are not just words but deeds. Prayers of thanks, of course, don't make things happen, but they are still words that go out; prayers of petition are said with the idea that God will make something happen.
So. The order is in, then out — not out, then in. Thoughts (inward) come before prayers (outward). You think something, then you say something to make something happen.
Or, as the case may be, you say something as a gesture. We do that quite a lot. If you offer someone your condolences, the words "my condolences" are your condolences — there's no bigger verbal packet of condolences still to come. Likewise with "congratulations." It's a formal magic word that accomplishes its gesture in the saying. And while in the 1800s "you are in my thoughts and prayers" could be relied on as a statement of fact, and "my thoughts and prayers go with you" showed clear intent for your mind to follow them, so to speak, now we often use thoughts and prayers in just the same contexts as we could use congratulations or condolences: "We extend our thoughts and prayers to [whoever]," for example, or "We send our thoughts and prayers," or "Our thoughts and prayers go out to [whoever]" — all three of which are turns of phrase not seen before the 1990s.
If we were sincere and literal about them, the prayers would not be extended or sent to people; they would be said to God on their behalf. Instead, expressions of "thoughts and prayers" are mostly said to the press — or to fellow congressmen (the Congressional Record is a good source for instances of these phrases). The word is the deed; no actual prayer is needed ... nor much thought, either.