The English Pedant – to prey or to play?

Prey is a funny word. Sounds like pray, and while praying as a practice may be out of fashion at the moment, the word is very much alive. It’s e-toting doppelganger, though, is on its way out, or would be if there were an obvious alternative.

It’s an uncomfortable word, sitting awkwardly in the term ‘bird of prey’. We know what that means, but somehow it doesn’t look right. And when it is used as a verb, with criminals preying on the elderly and paedophiles preying on the young, again, we know what it means but it still seems unnatural.

Perhaps that is why the expression ‘preying on my mind’ has been unthinkingly replaced by ‘playing on my mind’. If something is preying on our mind, it is eating, pecking away at our sense of peace, but since we don’t use the word very much and don’t think about what it means, someone somewhere once said ‘it’s playing on my mind’ and the great lemming-like English-speaking community adopted it without challenge.

Maybe we would rather be played on than preyed on, so the ugly word has been dropped and the more acceptable, happier one brought in.

This is the sort of thing the Pedant notices (capital p because it refers to this blog and its author, but we could use the lower case if you agree and we’re all pedants together).

A similar thing has happened to ‘my old stamping ground’. We know what it means, but it doesn’t stand much scrutiny. Our old stamping ground is a place where we spent much time in the past, but were we actually stamping? Hitting the ground deliberately with our feet? If it was a field with long grass, the effect of our stamping, or even just walking, would soon be seen, so maybe it has something to do with that, but no attempt at an explanation seems to be out there.

The vagueness may well account for the fact that many people now say stomping ground rather than stamping ground. When checking this out in the Oxford Online, I was surprised (and actually quite pleased) to find that the stomping version had yet to be included, and for once, a dictionary had stood up for itself and suggested that we may have meant stamping. Quite right too.

Several other online sources have accepted stomping, but this sort of thing should be stamped out.

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