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Word Wisdom: Vicarious

The latest inspirational column from Rev. Dr. John Kreutzwieser
Word Wisdom

A few weeks ago, I decided to do a little raking in the yard and fertilize before the predicted snow. After raking for a few days my allergies kicked in with a vengeance. My eyes watered, sinuses clogged, ears hurt, and my throat was scratchy. Seasonal allergies hit me hard sometimes. Over the past few years Patti has developed some of the same symptoms. I wonder if it is vicarious allergies.

Vicarious means experienced or realized through sympathetic participation in the experience of another. Maybe she feels sorry for my suffering and experiences similar symptoms because she never had allergies before.

Vicarious is derived from the Latin vicarius, which comes from vicis, meaning change, turn, exchange, or stead. Vicis is also the source of the English prefix vice, as in vice-president, meaning one that takes the place of.

Vicarious was first used in English in the early 1600s as serving in the stead of someone or something. It was often used in a religious sense as Jesus dying on the cross in place of sinners. The vicarious atonement within Protestant theology asserts that Jesus died for us, as a substitute for others. As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6)

There have been studies of medical examples of vicarious bleeding. In rare cases during the normal menstrual cycle red tears have occurred in the eyes. This bleeding is known as ocular vicarious menstruation. The same symptoms have been known to occur from other sources like the nose, ears, lungs, and even skin.

Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in Commonweal (June 2002), “I am a vicarious eater, often preferring a description of a meal to eating it. I hoard the Wednesday food section of the New York Times, savoring it as my late-night reading, finishing always with the restaurant review.”

In March 2024 Winston Cho penned in The Hollywood Reporter, “Still left undecided are claims that Disney is liable for vicarious and contributory copyright infringement, as well as patent infringement, for alleged use of the tech in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.”

One can travel vicariously throughout the world by reading posts from current travelers.  The TV show The Reluctant Traveler follows the comedic adventures of Eugene Levy as he visits some of the world's most remarkable hotels, and explores the people, places, and cultures and thus provides a vicarious experience for viewers.

Many people enjoy horror movies as they provide a vicarious encounter of abject fear while still sitting in your own living room. You can read books that provide a vicarious confrontation with the joys and risks of motherhood. Vicarious fun occurs when reading through various April Fool’s Day gags from around the world.

“Sport lifts people with a feeling of vicarious striving for perfection even when their team loses.” (The Economist, 31 Oct. 2019)

Synonyms for vicarious could be substitute, by proxy, and empathetic.

Substitute denotes a person or thing that takes the place or function of another. A pinch hitter was the batting substitute in the next inning when the catcher took a foul ball off his face mask.

By proxy means the authority to represent someone else, especially in voting. I receive a lot of notices for annual meetings of shareholders that provide the ability to designate someone to vote by proxy.

Empathetic implies the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and undergoing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. For those aware of the recent children’s program that has been making news around the world, this is a quote from Alan Sepinwall in Rolling Stone (April 2024): “Here, the other kids surround Bluey in an empathetic group hug, then begin to howl like members of the same pack.”

Whenever Patti sniffles and sneezes, I appreciate her vicarious allergies so that I am not alone in my suffering. It makes me feel better. Thanks!

John would like to know if anyone has a sincere interest in a relevant word that he could possibly research for an upcoming column. If so, please send your requests to Words will be selected according to relevance and research criteria. We cannot confirm that all words will be used.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication. 

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