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The meaning and origin of the expression: On a wing and a prayer

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On a wing and a prayer

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Meaning

In poor condition, but just managing to get the job done.

Origin

On a wing and a prayerThis phrase originated during WWII. The earliest reference that I can find to it is in the 1942 film The Flying Tigers. The screenplay, which was written by Kenneth Gamet and Barry Trivers, has John Wayne's character Captain Jim Gordon says this in a reference to the flight of replacement pilots:

Gordon: Any word on that flight yet?
Rangoon hotel clerk: Yes sir, it was attacked and fired on by Japanese aircraft. She's coming in on one wing and a prayer.

The phrase was taken up by songwriters Harold Adamson and Jimmie McHugh and their WWII patriotic song Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer, 1943 tells of a damaged warplane, barely able to limp back to base:

One of our planes was missing
Two hours overdue
One of our planes was missing
With all its gallant crew
The radio sets were humming
We waited for a word
Then a noise broke
Through the humming and this is what we heard

Comin' in on a wing and a prayer
Comin' in on a wing and a prayer
Though there's one motor gone
We can still carry on
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
With just one motor gone
We can still carry on
Comin' in on a wing and a prayer

Adamson and McHugh wrote several patriotic songs in World War II and were awarded the Presidential Certificate of Merit by President Harry Truman.

The phrase hit a chord with the public and there are many references to it in US newspapers from 1943 onwards. It was taken up by Hollywood and a film - Wing and a Prayer - was released in 1944.

The allusion to a stricken aircraft limping home may have been influenced by the earlier term 'winging it', which refers to actors struggling through parts that they have recently learned in the wings of a theatre.

The phrase is sometimes given mistakenly as "on a whim and a prayer", or "on a wink and a prayer".