The term’s saturation curve dates to the turn of the 21st century. Numerous ‘‘thoughts and prayers’’ pronouncements followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, both in public statements and in paid advertisements.
It’s hard to settle on why “thoughts and prayers” is objectionable. Maybe it’s just the aggressive passivity of the phrase. I’ve seen it included on compilations of ‘‘things not to say’’ that people enduring difficult times sometimes assemble. In an article about his battle with cancer in his This Life column for The Times, the author and social commentator Bruce Feiler listed ‘‘My thoughts and prayers are with you’’ as a big no-no. ‘‘In my experience, some people think about you, which is nice,’’ Feiler wrote. ‘‘Others pray for you, which is equally comforting. But the majority of people who say they’re sending ‘thoughts and prayers’ are just falling back on a mindless cliché.’’
To send ‘‘thoughts’’ would seem to be a deadened way of saying ‘‘I’ve been, or will be, thinking about you’’ (which would sound nicer), just as a generic announcement of ‘‘prayers’’ is a neutered version of ‘‘I’m praying for you.’’ After the mass shooting this summer that killed nine in a church in Charleston, S.C., Lindsey Graham gave a statement that, by enlivening the words and adding heart, made all the difference. ‘‘To the families of the victims, please know that you are being prayed for and loved by so many in the community and across the nation. I pray that God will provide you healing in the coming days.’’
When I discussed ‘‘thoughts and prayers’’ with astute media consumers, it elicited smirks and sneers. ‘‘It takes a couple of traditional pieties — ‘in our thoughts’ and ‘in our prayers’ — and combines them to somehow make the underlying sentiments even emptier, along Hallmark lines,’’ said Bob Garfield, a co-host of WNYC’s ‘‘On the Media’’ and the Slate podcast about language called ‘‘Lexicon Valley.’’ ‘‘When uttered by civilians, it’s mechanical enough,’’ Garfield said. ‘‘When uttered by elected officials, it has all the emotional resonance of a Miranda warning.’’
Mark Leibovich, “So Sorry”, The New York Times Magazine (18 October 2015), 19.