Today’s word comes with interesting etymological baggage, as it originates with the Latin words pretio, pretiare and pretium. For the Romans, these words were used to denote and determine the cost of an item (human, animal, vegetable, or mineral price) or used to describe an award for some purpose (prize). These distant roots bubbled up through Old French and Middle English into the present to take shape in three words we think of as being separate today: price, prize, praise, and their relatives appreciate, apprize, appraise, appraisal, prise, precious, apprise, comprise, depreciate. But are they really as separate as they seem?
When we praise someone we know, work with, have witnessed something laudable (the root of this word in Latin – laudare – meant devotional praise in Roman times), have heard about someone doing something great, etc., we have evaluated (or appraised) the activities known to us and set a price on them, rewarded with the prize of praise. These types of praise are very much of our realm, of the world.
This all makes the religious use of the word praise sort of strange. The word is used to describe a means of worship, but the Latin root for the word prayer (Latin precarius for ‘obtained by entreaty’) is quite different from the word for praise, although their meanings seem to have elided some time in relatively modern evolutions of French and English (e.g. 17th to 18th centuries).
When we praise whichever supernatural being we’ve placed at the center of our spiritual universe, do our verbalizing and singing, mumbling or shouting, writhing, leaping, or stately sitting, we are attempting demonstrate our evaluation of this being and reward “it” a prize (my “god” is an “it” because I can’t begin to imagine such an entity, encapsulating all space-time and dimensionality as “it” must, having a gender determined by earthly measures)?
Do we think that if we build a big house of praise it evaluates our most sincere thoughts more accurately than if our house is small and weather-worn?
Is sound even necessary? If an appraisal has been made, can praise be delivered without a sound as effectively as with a cacophony of voices, claps, and stomps, regardless of when or where? Is praise something only a modern god can receive or did the ancient animists, who understood none of what we understand about writing and about the sacred texts that have come down through time, who understood no science, astronomy or otherwise, do just as well when they faced another dark night full of extraterrestrial lights, with or without a moon, a moon that continuously changed on a cycle, with barely seen eyes staring at them through the dark beyond their fires, the wind and water making their unsteady sounds, the nocturnal creatures hooting and chirping and rustling and cawing, mocking our huddled ancestors throughout the night? Or was their praise, pre-Latinate or not, more profound in the absence of words and convoluted beliefs?
I don’t think we will ever know.