Sometimes words change in meaning when you are not looking and then bounce up in front of you in surprising ways. I was listening to a news report on a tinnie that capsized in ‘precarious waters’ and snapped to attention as I considered this strange use of precarious. Strange to me, but, as I discover, perfectly normal in today’s English.
The OED has not caught up with it yet. The OED and I were plodding happily along thinking of precarious (applying to a situation) as meaning ‘fraught with danger or hazardous’ or precarious (applying to a particular object such as a ladder or a bridge or a cup balanced on the edge of the table) meaning ‘liable to collapse or fall down at any moment’.
In this instance the situation of the people in the tinnie was most definitely precarious, but what about the state of the waters? I imagined precarious waters as suddenly falling away from under the boat or turning into sand or going up in a puff of steam. These waters were solid enough. What we were dealing with was precarious in its first meaning applied to a particular object, a precarious which was a synonym for dangerous, threatening, hazardous, which could be applied to a situation or environment and then, by a stretch, to waters as a kind of environment. It is okay to talk about precarious waters but not precarious water.
In poetry I would be quite taken with precarious water. The sudden jolt of semantics would give me the image of the water taking on the feelings and fears of the humans. It would give an intensity to the sense of danger. Poets push words around in all directions and suddenly shove meanings to new limits just to give that extra charge to their writing.
To my discomfiture I discover that precarious waters is practically a cliché. I need to update my personal lexicon on this one.