Printable Version
Pronunciation: pre-vê-lênt Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: Wide-spread and commonplace, found everywhere, ubiquitous.

Notes: Today's word is the adjective from the verb prevail, whose meaning has drifted slightly off course. The adverb is prevalently and the noun, prevalence. The sense of this word is more closely associated with time or frequency, as "storms are prevalent in the area", while ubiquitous is more closely related to place or area, as "palm trees are ubiquitous in the area". Other than these two connotative differences, the words are very similar in meaning.

In Play: You would certainly want to use this word in referring to anything occurring frequently: "Complaints about working in cubicles became so prevalent that the company finally eliminated them." However, it is also applicable where the frequency-area distinction is irrelevant: "The belief that black cats bring bad luck is prevalent at dog shows."

Word History: In Middle English today's word meant "very strong", taken from Latin prevalent-, the present participle of prevalere "to be stronger", the verb which also gave us prevail via French. The same root turns up in several other words that English borrowed from French and Latin, including valiant, valid, and value. The same ancient root, *wal- "strength, strong" came down to English as wield and the name with strength built in, Walter. In German it turns up in walten "to govern, control" and in the Slavic languages as Russian vlast' "power" and Czech vlast "country, native land", as in the title of Bedrich Smetana's symphonic poem Ma Vlast "My Native Land".

Dr. Goodword,

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