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Can anyone explain how predicament from the Latin word family dicere ‘to say’ and praedicare, can develop the meaning precarious situation? Etymonline can't.

early 15c., "category, class; one of Aristotle's 10 categories," from Medieval Latin predicamentum, from Late Latin praedicamentum "quality, category, something predicted, that which is asserted," from Latin praedicatus, past participle of praedicare. Praedicamentum is a loan-translation of Greek kategoria, Aristotle's word. The meaning "unpleasant situation" is first recorded 1580s.

I think this curious development is quite a jump and I'm considering not using this curious word anymore, even if it is used.

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    Latin praedicare and praedicere and English predicate have nothing to do with precarious situation.
    – rogermue
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 6:58
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    I'm not a fan of any question which takes the stance (implicitly or explicitly) that words are under any sort of obligation to have their modern meaning reflect their historical origins. Language operates by the grace of -- indeed could not operate at all except for -- the principle of the arbitrary sign. Why does "predicament" mean "precarious situation" today? Who cares? Why is then tree outside my window 21'7.3" tall with 98 branches and 16,497 leaves and not 20'10.2" tall with 400 branches and 34,782 leaves? Or some other configuration? Because that's the way it grew. That's way it is now.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 7:39
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    @DanBron - I think that semantic changes are an interesting part of how a language evolves through the centuries, in the sense that they often reflect cultural issues and trends which affect the lives of people and the language they speak. After all are we not language "enthusiasts"?
    – user66974
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 8:36
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    @DanBron - Your comment shows that you don't know what etymology is. All those who have established etymological dictionaries must be idiots. Believe me there is a logic in the invention of words and their semantic development. But not everybody gets so far as to get a feeling for it.
    – rogermue
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 14:37
  • I like the question, it's curious and if I were you I'd wait until the question is eligible for a bounty. I'm sure there are users who could provide a detailed and thoughtful answer. Janus Bahs Jacquet is one....
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 22:58

2 Answers 2

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Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (1756) has this not-at-all-ominous entry for predicament:

PREDICAMENT. s. {predicament, Fr. prædicamentum, Lat.} 1. A class or arrangement of beings or substances ranked according to their natures: called also categorema or category. Digby. 2. Class or kind described by any definitive marks. Shakespeare.

Noah Webster, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806) likewise offers no hint that predicament may lean toward the negative:

Predicament, n. a class, arrangement, kind, state

The same is true of Webster's first massive dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828):

PREDICAMENT, n. {Fr. from L. prædicamentum, from prædico, to affirm.} 1. In logic, a category ; a series or order of all the predicates or attributes contained under any genus. The school philosophers distribute all the objects of our thoughts and ideas into genera or classes, which the Greeks call categories, and the Latins predicaments. Aristotle made ten categories, viz. substance, quantity, quality, relation, action, passion, time, place, situation and habit. {Encyc.} 2. Class or kind described by any definite marks ; hence, condition ; particular situation or state. {Shak.} We say, the country is in a singular predicament.

The example Webster chooses here is interesting in that it could as well be used to convey the sense that the country is in a parlous state as to present it as being in a situation of unspecified positives or negatives. The landscape changes with Webster's revised American Dictionary of the English Language (1847), which repeats the two definitions from the 1828 edition but then adds a third before the final remark that "We say the country is in a singular predicament":

3. Sometimes, a bad condition or position. {Colloquial} Smart. We say the country is in a singular predicament.

The subsequent American Dictionary of the English Language (1864) draws the negative sense of the term farther into the basic meaning of the word:

Predicament, n. [Derivation omitted.] Class or kind described by any definite marks; hence, condition; particular situation or state; especially, an unfortunate or trying position or condition. "O woful sympathy, piteous predicament." Shak. ... Syn.—Category; condition; state; plight.

The continuing evolution of the term is recorded in Webster's New International Dictionary (1909):

predicament n. [Derivation omitted.] 1. That which is predicated or asserted ; a class or kind described by any definite marks. Specif.: Logic. = CATEGORY, 1. 2. Condition, ; situation ; state ; esp., an unpleasant, unfortunate, or trying position, condition, or situation. "O woful sympathy, piteous predicament." *Shak.*3. Preaching. Obs. and R.

Syn.—PREDICAMENT, PLIGHT, QUANDARY, DILEMMA are here compared in their nontechnical senses. PREDICAMENT and PLIGHT were originally applicable to good as well as bad conditions, but now commonly connote as their modifier "bad," "evil," or the like ; predicament applies esp. to situations or positions, plight, to states or conditions, which are unfortunate, trying, or unpleasant ; as, "Advice ... may be of such nature that it will be painful to reject and yet impossible to follow it; and in this predicament I conceive myself to be placed" (Crabbe) ; "Had I but seen thy picture in this plight, it would have madded me : What shall I do now I behold thy lively body so?" (Shak.).

And finally, Ernest Weekley, An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1921) has this entry for predicament:

predicament. F. prédicament, Late L. praedicamentum (see predicate), used to render Aristotle's κατηγορια, category of predications. Mod. sense is narrowed from gen. sense of class, condition.

Irish ladies of strict virtue, and many northern lasses of the same predicament (Tom Jones).


Conclusion

It thus appears that predicament underwent a transformation from meaning "[uncharacterized] situation" to meaning "bad situation" in the course of about a century (1806–1909)—and that it did so through the natural process of evolving popular usage, centuries after it first emerged as an English word.

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Etymonline says that "predicament" meaning "unpleasant situation", is first recorded 1580s. It appears that the term, originally meaning assertion, proclamation or declaration, has been used with a different and negative connotation from the end of the 16th century. I think that this change may have originated from one of the meanings that "predicament" had during Medieval and Middle English period, that is: "preaching". Preaching has the same root and is associated with sermons that tells you what's wrong and what you are not suppose to do in order to avoid God's punishment. By analogy a "predicament" may have been reasonably associated to a difficult and possibly dangerous situation:

Predicament:

  • Etymology: From Old French, from Late Latin praedicamentum (that which is predicated, a predicament, category, Medieval Latin also a preaching, discourse), from Latin praedicare (to declare, proclaim, predicate); see predicate. (www.explainwords.com)

Preach:

  • at first in late Old English predician, a loan word from Church Latin; reborrowed 12c. as preachen, from Old French preechier "to preach, give a sermon" (11c., Modern French précher), from Late Latin praedicare "to proclaim publicly, announce" (in Medieval Latin "to preach"), from Latin prae "before" (see pre-) + dicare "to proclaim, to say" (see diction). (Etymonline)

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