The action of the new P D James detective novel Death in Holy Orders takes place in a theological college. Coming across the well-known collect or short prayer from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer was not therefore so surprising: “Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings”, since it was a deliberate authorial marker for the old-fashioned ways of the college.
The prayer is actually older than the 1662 prayer book — it appears in the same wording in the 1549 version. It is still used at the beginning of each daily session of the British House of Commons and House of Lords. In Isaak Walton’s book The Compleat Angler of 1653 there appears: “First let’s pay our reckoning, for I will have nothing to hinder me in the morning; for my purpose is to prevent the sun-rising”. He seems to have succeeded: he got up while it was still dark.
The word is a good example of the many that have significantly shifted their meanings down the centuries. Isaak Walton and the writers of the 1549 prayer book were both using it in a sense that was then standard, of acting in anticipation of something, or preceding it. The specifically religious sense, which appears also in Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament of 1531, and in the later Articles of Religion, as well as the Authorised Version of 1611, refers to God’s grace anticipating human actions or needs, or of worshippers going forth with spiritual guidance and help.
Its source is the Latin praevenire, to come before, precede or anticipate, made up of prae, before, plus venire, to come. Precede itself derives from Latin cedere, to go, hence to go before somebody or something — though it is closely related in origin and sense to prevent, it has retained its links to the Latin sense, while those of prevent have been greatly modified.
The shift is not hard to understand. Though it began its life in English with the idea of acting in anticipation of some event, within a century it had also taken on the idea of forestalling something or somebody, to respond to some situation in order to frustrate or thwart an opponent. From there to the modern sense is no distance.