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Is this an archaic form of "please proceed"? I have never heard in in speech but sometimes it appears in novels. My version of "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" is full of it, apparently in place of "please".

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The NOAD installed on my Mac Mini reported the following definition for pray.

adverb formal or archaic
used as a preface to polite requests or instructions: pray continue.
• used as a way of adding ironic or sarcastic emphasis to a question: and what, pray, was the purpose of that?

In the first example, you can replace pray with please.

Similar definition is given by the Oxford Living Dictionaries.

  • 1
    That last form is, I think, a shortening of "pray tell"; which means pray is still used as a form of "please". – Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 26 '11 at 14:53
  • and what, pray, does "NOAD" stand for? – Thomas Browne Aug 21 '17 at 7:55
  • It stands for New Oxford American Dictionary. – kiamlaluno Aug 21 '17 at 8:00
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http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pray

pray late 13c., "ask earnestly, beg," also "pray to a god or saint," from O.Fr. preier (c.900), from L. precari "ask earnestly, beg," from *prex (plural preces, gen. precis) "prayer, request, entreaty," from PIE base *prek- "to ask, request, entreat" (cf. Skt. prasna-, Avestan frashna- "question;" O.C.S. prositi, Lith. prasyti "to ask, beg;" O.H.G. frahen, Ger. fragen, O.E. fricgan "to ask" a question). Parenthetical expression I pray you, “please, if you will,” attested from 1510s, contracted to pray 16c.

  • In short, the dated pray for please is connected with French je vous prie. – rogermue Nov 9 '14 at 6:45
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The word "pray" means to earnestly ask something of someone. Therefore, the phrase "pray proceed" could be interpreted as "Please, I beg of you, proceed".

In modern English, we often think of the term "pray" in a spiritual context, but the meaning is the same: to ask something of someone.

  • 1
    Dead right, +1. Even nowadays in certain legal documents, the prayer is the section that asks the Court to do something. – TimLymington Jun 5 '11 at 13:28
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See also the version I like enough to consider using in conversation to stage a come back: Prithee tell. The etymology sheds some light on the sometimes sarcastic nature of pray tell.

1

adverb formal or archaic
1Used as a preface to polite requests or instructions: ladies and gentlemen, pray be seated

1.1Used as a way of adding ironic or sarcastic emphasis to a question: and what, pray, was the purpose of that?

From online Oxford English dictionary

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