I have heard this phrase used but seen it spelled two different ways "pray tell" or "prey tell". Which is right, or are they both right? What is its origin?

Thank you for any light you can shed on this!
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'Pray tell' is the correct spelling. It is a usage showing politeness and concern for the other individual.


Pray tell me... are you alright?

The following sentence expresses great concern and respect to the person I'm talking to.

I don't know about its origin. Someone else will shed light on that.

I think "prey" is misspelled; here "pray" (cf. prayer) means "please", "I pray you".
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It is an archaic version of 'please'.

Not used in everyday language now, only for effect.
Hi guys,

'Pray' as a form of 'please' seems to have survived today mainly in the standard phrase 'Pray tell'.

Interestingly, considering its archaic aspect, Google offers 949,000 hits for "pray tell".

I still hear it, and even say it, once in a while today. It's usually used in a rather arch kind of way. "And pray tell what you have been up to, since your wife is away for the weekend." Or in an ironic kind of way. 'And pray tell, what were you thinking of when you put that lampshade on your head at the party?'

As well as 'I pray you', there's also the even more heavily archaic version 'Prithee'.

Best wishes, Clive
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Hi again,

A final thought.

This is an interesting topic, because such phrases of politeness serve as the 'small change' of our everyday conversation. We take them for granted yet, as in the case of 'pray tell', they do come into and fall out of fashion over time.

Even 'please' is a shortened form of something like, 'Pour me some wine if it pleases you to do that for me'. The word 'sorry', in fact, is so ubiquitous that I was amazed to read that it was first recorded in print only in 1914. (20th. Century Words by John Ayto)

Best wishes, Clive

PS - Permit me to clarify about 'sorry'. I meant the word 'sorry' when used by itself as an apology/regret, thus: Sorry. I don't know. The previous form was I'm sorry, although even that is not as old as one might think.
I do not doubt any of the erudite research, but being one open to possibilities I sometimes like to think about how the "mis" spellings/interpretations come about.

"To tell" is most often akin to the truth (as one knows it)...to "prey" obviously, is to seek the destruction of, or perhaps in a wider sense, the unveiling of (as in the predator ripping open the prey to reveal what delicacies lie inside).

It seems just as apparent to me how someone would make the mistake in the mis-use (which we all know through adoption becomes the new "truth").

"And what, prey-tell, are your intentions in this senseless meander?".

But we are here to be accurate with the language and to guard in vigilance against the predatory nature of those nastys who would in rakish nature mis-use it so.

Still, it is interesting to consider just how the misuse comes about; and more delightful still, how it becomes a part of us through use and usage.

Now, where on earth did I leave my phoenetic dictionary -you know, the one with all the "alternate" definitions?

Hi foxcom -- I don't find your theory of "prey" tell especially plausible, but I am interested in the phenomenon you describe -- where a mis-hearing makes as much sense (though manybe in a different way) as the original, and so some people become convinced it's the "correct" version. An example of this might be "for all intensive purposes" (instead of "for all intents and purposes"). I've seen these called "egg-corns" (for "acorns"), and "Mondegreens" when they occur in song lyrics. If you're interested, google those terms and you'll find a zillion of them. In fact, I think I'll do that right now to remember some of my favorites.
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