The Meaning of Pray Tell: What It Is and How To Use It

This article will give you all of the information you need on the phrase pray tell, including its definition, origin, usage, example sentences and more!

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What is the meaning of the phrase pray tell?

Pray tell is an idiomatic expression usually used for emphasis, or to demand an answer from someone, according to Merriam-Webster. Archaically, the phrase was used genuinely, to ask someone to explain something that the user does not know or understand. This was an earnest plea for someone to clarify or repeat themselves.

However, in modern day, the phrase is usually used sarcastically as an interjection when asking someone to explain themselves. It is commonly used by someone expressing incredulity or doubt, and invites the recipient to explain themselves– if they dare.

According to Fandom, Pray Tell is also a character in the Ryan Murphy FX series Pose. Played by Billy Porter, Pray Tell is an emcee and member of the Masters of Ceremony Council. He acts as a father figure in the show, and guides the House of Evangelista. In the show, Pray Tell learns that he is HIV positive and must adjust to his new life. The character appears in the first two seasons of the show thus far.

What is the etymology of the phrase pray tell?

According to One Step Forward, some commonly believe that William Shakespeare was the inventor of the phrase. While he may have expanded usage of the term, it was used long before his time. The word “pray” comes from the Latin precari, meaning to ask earnestly or beg. Its usage as a word meaning “please, if you will” or in the phrase :I pray you” began in the late 14th century. Before this, phrase “I pray thee” was used for a similar meaning, beginning around 1300. In the 16th century, the phrase became contracted to simply “pray,” according to Etymonline.

The word tell, according to Etymonline, began to mean “to announce” or “to relate” around the year 1000. The word originates from the Danish tale meaning “to speak,” as well as roots in Old English, Proto-Germanic, Old Norse and Old Frisian.

WordSense states that when pray was used to emphasize requests, the format “pray ____” was common for requests, i.e. “pray help me” or “pray bring that over here,” similar to the way we use the word please in present day. The phrase pray tell began as an earnest request that stemmed from this usage and has continued as a popular term.

Due to its archaic nature, the phrase nowadays is mostly used for sarcastic or incredulous emphasis, or to express doubt, and is rarely used to genuinely ask someone to explain.

How can the phrase pray tell be used in a sentence?

The phrase pray tell can be used in two different ways: one sincere, one sarcastic. In this first example, Juliet is at her bachelorette party talking to her aunt.

Juliet: Aunt Martha! Thank you so much for coming.

Martha: I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Pray tell, how did you land a catch like your fiance? He’s really something! I’m looking for one of my own!

Juliet: He really is. I met him online!

Here, Martha uses the phrase pray tell sincerely to ask Juliet how she met her fiance. While this is not the typical usage of the word in modern day, it is still perfectly acceptable and clear what Martha is saying. She uses the phrase “pray tell” similar to the phrase “do tell” in this context.

In the next example, Justine is questioning her middle son Tomas who she believes to be lying about sneaking out the night before. She found an empty bed at midnight, and discovered Tomas sleeping in his bed fully clothed – shoes and all – in the morning. Tomas insists he is innocent.

Tomas: Mom, I was home all night. I promise. I played my Hawaiian ukulele, practiced Portuguese, and was in bed by eleven. I was out of bed at midnight because I went to make sure the doors were locked.

Justine: Then why, pray tell, did your sleeping father in the living room not hear you come downstairs? Why did neither I nor my youngest son hear you practicing such instruments?

Tomas: You’re all heavy sleepers?

Justine: And why, pray tell, did you sleep with your shoes on?

Tomas: I… um…

Justine: You’ve created a logical fallacy, Tomas.

Here, Justine uses the phrase pray tell sarcastically for emphasis because she believes that Tomas is lying. She uses the phrase to insist he explain himself and tell her the truth, if he can.

What are synonyms of the phrase pray tell?

According to Power Thesaurus, there are many synonyms one can use to express incredulity at a situation. These are listed below, alongside their definitions from Oxford Languages

  • Do tell – Used to express surprise and to request more information about the given topic.
  • I beg your pardon – A polite way to ask someone to repeat themselves.
  • Pardon? – A way to request a speaker repeat themselves or clarify what they have said.
  • Excuse me? – A phrase used to ask someone to repeat themselves or to clarify something.
  • Come again? – An informal way to ask someone to repeat or explain themselves.
  • Say what? – Used to express incredulity or surprise.
  • Huh? – An exclamation used to express disbelief or surprise, or a lack of understanding.

Overall, the phrase pray tell has two meanings. The first dated meaning is an idiom used to ask someone to explain or clarify something. The second more common usage is sarcastic, and used to emphasize one’s incredulity when asking someone to explain something the speaker doubts.