pre·​car·​i·​ous | \ pri-ˈker-ē-əs How to pronounce precarious (audio) \

Definition of precarious

1a : dependent on chance circumstances, unknown conditions, or uncertain developments … forced to earn a precarious living as a door-to-door salesman.— Peter Ackroyd Their wealth was precarious, liable to be seized by the sultan if they fell from favour …— Albert Hourani … the resilience of our still-evolving planet, where life is always precarious but always tenacious.— Robert MacKenzie
b : characterized by a lack of security or stability that threatens with danger His balance looks precarious, and I try to talk him down …— Blake Morrison In spite of his precarious emotional state, he wrote more than two dozen books …— Liesl Schillinger At 82 years old, she was in precarious health and had respiratory problems.— Annabelle Olivier … a downturn in food supply could tip a precarious balance.— Mary Cherry If the condition of the biosphere is even half as precarious as the environmentalists suggest, then the twenty-first century must, of necessity, abandon the theory of value so lovingly displayed in the windows of Bloomingdale's.— Lewis H. Lapham
2 : dependent on uncertain premises : dubious … the student of psychology who cares little for brilliant precarious generalizations …Baltimore Medical Journal and Bulletin
3 archaic : depending on the will or pleasure of another In rank and authority these officers seemed not inferior to the ancient proconsuls; but their station was dependent and precarious.— Edward Gibbon

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Choose the Right Synonym for precarious

dangerous, hazardous, precarious, perilous, risky mean bringing or involving the chance of loss or injury. dangerous applies to something that may cause harm or loss unless dealt with carefully. soldiers on a dangerous mission hazardous implies great and continuous risk of harm or failure. claims that smoking is hazardous to your health precarious suggests both insecurity and uncertainty. earned a precarious living by gambling perilous strongly implies the immediacy of danger. perilous mountain roads risky often applies to a known and accepted danger. shied away from risky investments

Did You Know?

This little happiness is so very precarious, that it wholly depends on the will of others. Joseph Addison, in a 1711 issue of Spectator magazine, couldn't have described the oldest sense of precarious more precisely-the original meaning of the word was "depending on the will or pleasure of another." Prayers and entreaties directed at that "other" might or might not help, but what precariousness really hangs on, in the end, is prex, the Latin word for prayer. From prex came the Latin word precarius, meaning "obtained by entreaty," from whence came our own adjective precarious. Anglo-French priere, also from precarius, gave us prayer.

Examples of precarious in a Sentence

These states are corrupt and brutal. They are theocracies, or precarious autocracies, or secular totalitarian states: tyrannies all, deniers of freedom, republics of fear, enemies of civility and human flourishing. — Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review, 15 Oct. 2001 Such folks led a precarious existence, their homes routinely destroyed in pursuit of a scorched earth policy whenever Florence came under siege. — R. W. B. Lewis, Dante, 2001 She was the first baby he had ever held; he had thought it would be a precarious experience, shot through with fear of dropping something so precious and fragile, but no, in even the smallest infant there was an adhesive force, a something that actively fit your arms and hands, banishing the fear. — John Updike, The Afterlife, 1994 He earned a precarious livelihood by gambling. The strong wind almost knocked him off of his precarious perch on the edge of the cliff.
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Recent Examples on the Web Farmers remain a powerful lobby, and with presidential elections approaching in the Spring of 2022, their precarious economic situation will likely remain an important political issue. Chris O'brien, Forbes, "Food Fight! Vegetarian School Menu In Lyon Sparks Protests," 26 Feb. 2021 At the hearing, Connolly oscillated between giving Republican colleagues a tongue-lashing and casting doubt on the ability of the U.S. Postal Service’s leader to address serious mail slowdowns amid a precarious financial situation. Washington Post, "At postal hearing, Rep. Connolly says he ‘will not be lectured’ by election deniers," 25 Feb. 2021 The tenants — all Honduran immigrants — gathered Sunday to describe their precarious situation. San Antonio Express-News, "Express Briefing: S.A.'s CBD trailblazers talk growth," 8 Feb. 2021 Still, Iraqis — though preoccupied with the country’s precarious security situation and pressing political and financial problems — feel a deep connection here. New York Times, "In Beleaguered Babylon, Doing Battle Against Time, Water and Modern Civilization," 6 Feb. 2021 Although many warned of a precarious situation — throngs of demonstrators among Derby revelers could spell trouble at best and violence at worst — a massive protest seemed possible the day before the race., "A Derby standoff, a statehouse rally and Louisville marches: MLK's legacy in Kentucky," 18 Jan. 2021 Alabama ends 2020 in a precarious situation in terms of population. Ramsey Archibald |, al, "More people are moving to Alabama than moving away," 29 Dec. 2020 Rubio seldom mentions this, perhaps because working-class life back then didn’t seem so precarious. Christopher Caldwell, The New Republic, "Can There Ever Be a Working-Class Republican Party?," 8 Feb. 2021 But in the era of COVID-19, officials and experts say Sunday's game poses a tremendous risk, and that widespread large watch parties could imperil California's precarious emergence from the pandemic's worst wave. Luke Money, Star Tribune, "Experts warn: Stay away from Super Bowl parties," 6 Feb. 2021

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'precarious.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of precarious

1626, in the meaning defined at sense 3

History and Etymology for precarious

Latin precārius "given as a favor, depending on the pleasure or mercy of others, of questionable force or permanence, uncertain" + -ous — more at prayer entry 1

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Time Traveler for precarious

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The first known use of precarious was in 1626

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Last Updated

2 Mar 2021

Cite this Entry

“Precarious.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 7 Mar. 2021.

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More Definitions for precarious



English Language Learners Definition of precarious

: not safe, strong, or steady


pre·​car·​i·​ous | \ pri-ˈker-ē-əs How to pronounce precarious (audio) \

Kids Definition of precarious

: not safe, strong, or steady precarious balance a precarious journey

Other Words from precarious

precariously adverb


pre·​car·​i·​ous | \ pri-ˈkar-ē-əs How to pronounce precarious (audio) \

Legal Definition of precarious

: depending on the will or pleasure of another — see also precarious possession at possession

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Comments on precarious

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