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On a wing and a prayer

Q From On a wing and a prayer: What does on a wing and a prayer mean?

A It means that you’re in a desperate situation and you’re relying on hope to see you through.

Congratulations on getting it right. It’s one of the more commonly mangled phrases in the language, frequently being said and written as “on a whim and a prayer”. One recent example was in the Daily Mail of 25 May 2004: “It does nothing to change the impression of a club stumbling along on a whim and a prayer”.

Believe me, there’s nothing capricious about it. Anyone who can write it that way is surely too young to know that it comes from a famous American World War Two patriotic song, with words by Harold Adamson and music by Jimmy McHugh. It tells the tale of a plane struggling home after a bombing raid:

Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer
What a show, what a fight
Boys, we really hit our target for tonight
How we sing as we limp through the air
Look below, there’s our field over there
Though there’s one motor gone
We can still carry on
Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.

The song came out at the end of 1942 and instantly became a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic, so much so that the phrase almost immediately entered the language.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 30 Oct. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 30 October 2004.