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"Let me live vicariously"

Posted by Smokey Stover on August 04, 2005

In Reply to: "Let me live vicariously" posted by Victoria S Dennis on August 01, 2005

: : Could someone please tell me where the phrase "Let me live vicariously" originates from?

: "Let me live vicariously through you" was used in an instalment of "Friends" and a lot of people seem to have been parroting it since.

The word vicariously and all its relatives seem, for once, to have a rather unified set of meanings, all stemming from vicar, meaning substitute, stand-in, designated representative. Catholics are familiar with the notion of the Pope as the Vicar of Christ (or sometimes, at least in early writings, as the Vicar of God); and the Church of England has vicars in those parishes which lack rectors, stand-ins or substitutes for the rector. (This isn't the whole story, but it's close enough.)

Vicarious (and vicariously) adhere to this sense. Power can be wielded vicariously by one person on behalf of another. Punishment can be meted out vicariously to one in place of another (as in whipping-boy, for instance). Perhaps the definition most relevant to "living vicariously" is what the OED describes as "Experienced imaginatively through another person or agency," which can be used to mean "second-hand, at one remove" in some contexts. This use of the word seems to have become common in the 1920s, and my memory tells me that advice columns have for a long time been full of references to mothers wishing to live vicariously through their daughters (and sometimes making a hell of their daughters' lives).

Stage mothers, when they make the news, seem often to fall into this category. The musical "Gypsy," based on the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, makes much of the role of Rose Hovick, her mother (and nother also of the recently deceased June Havoc). Patsy Ramsey, once a beauty queen, turned her daughter into one, dressing little JonBenet in fancy costumes and teaching her the moves needed to win the beauty contests for small girls in which JonBenet was entered, which might collectively be called Miss American Tot. (JonBenet, a very pretty child, often won in spite of her execrable singing.) For a time Rose was able to live vicariously in the successes of her daughter, Patsy Ramsey in the successes of hers.

Little League fathers are also notorious for wishing to live vicariously in their young offspring, leading to testosterone-drenched encounters between dads and umpires so violent at times that Little League baseball games are now played under a set of rules specifically designed to keep the peace.

So the friends of Friends, at least in the U.S., have long been familiar with the concept of living vicariously. SS

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