Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Vicar is a common term in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches (and, to a lesser degree, the Episcopalian Church), which is one reason most Protestant Americans are more likely to encounter the word in British TV comedies than in their daily lives. The word vicar traces back to the Latin vicarius “substitute, proxy,” which is a noun use of the adjective vicarius, from the word vicis “change, succession.” It’s the same root that gave us the word vicissitudes, meaning “changeability” and often in reference to the inconveniences that go along with change.
The original notion of vicarius was of an earthly stand-in for some other, higher power. Until the 12th century, one of the titles of the pope — God’s “stand-in” on Earth, if you will — was Vicarius Petri, “Vicar of Peter.” But since Pope Innocent III, the title has been Vicarius Christi, “Vicar of Christ,” though some popes preferred Vicarius Dei, “Vicar of God.”
The Old French derivative vicaire, which led to the English vicar by the early 14th century, was used both inside and outside the church to indicate a type of deputy or second in command. Today, though, it’s primarily a religious title. In modern Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, a vicar is a member of the clergy who acts in the stead of — as a substitute for — another, usually higher-level clergyman. A priest can’t be everywhere all at once, after all.
If this sounds familiar, you might recall that a similar lexical route led to the hard-to-spell word lieutenant.
Bonus word: A related word that derives from the same vicis is the vice of vice president or vice chair. And the lexical connection to vicar is clear: A vice president or vice chair is someone who can stand in — with the same power and authority — for the president or chair when they are unavailable.
So if you live like a vicar (or park in his parking spot), does that mean you’re living vicariously? Of course not, but the words are certainly related. Vicarious developed independently of vicar from the same Latin vicarius. By the early 17th century, the adjective vicarious meant “done or experienced in the place of another,” in a literal sense. The majority of early uses in print of vicarious and vicariously refer to Jesus vicariously atoning for the sins of man.
The broader vicarious — wherein one could claim to have vicariously experienced the thrill of sky-diving by looking through someone else’s Instagram feed — didn’t come into fashion until the 1920s. That sense is the more common among us average folk, but vicarious still retains its earlier meaning in many legal situations. (For example, a corporation is vicariously liable for its employees’ actions.)
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