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

Essential Meaning of precarious

: not safe, strong, or steady He earned a precarious livelihood/living by gambling. She was in a state of precarious [=delicate] health. See More ExamplesThe government is in a precarious position. [=a dangerous position that must be dealt with carefully] The strong wind almost knocked him off of his precarious perch on the edge of the cliff.Hide

Full 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 Without long-term investment in social housing, there are few solutions to the precarious position of renters facing down climate change. Saritha Ramakrishna, The New Republic, 11 Oct. 2021 But a presumably lengthy NLDS would leave the Giants in a more precarious pitching position, and best-of-seven series to follow will force Nos. 3-4 starters Alex Wood and Anthony DeSclafani into more prominent roles. Gabe Lacques, USA TODAY, 7 Oct. 2021 But Hevner and nursing students like her who refuse to get vaccinated against Covid-19 are in an increasingly precarious position. Michelle Andrews, Quartz, 6 Oct. 2021 The end of a federal eviction moratorium puts renters in a more precarious position. Bailey Loosemore, The Courier-Journal, 5 Oct. 2021 Now, this sweeping movement has left recruiters in a precarious position to fill those empty roles. Jasmine Browley, Essence, 30 Sep. 2021 That burden will add more drag to an already precarious financial position. Michael T. Nietzel, Forbes, 26 Sep. 2021 The law also has placed doctors and other health care providers in a precarious position. Lauren Caruba, San Antonio Express-News, 26 Sep. 2021 Add to this the fact that over 40% of Canadian millennials are part of the gig economy and are entering the workforce with high student loans and credit card debt, and young people are largely in a precarious financial position. Katherine Singh,, 13 Sep. 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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The first known use of precarious was in 1626

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Last Updated

16 Oct 2021

Cite this Entry

“Precarious.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 26 Oct. 2021.

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More Definitions for precarious


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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