The idiom “on a wing and a prayer” is a now general way to describe making an effort to succeed in the face of difficult, or dangerous, circumstances — and hoping that luck, or God, will be on your side.
During World War II, when the phrase first became part of the English language, it was meant in a very literal way.
It referred to Allied airmen flying back to their base in damaged planes, hoping and praying that they’d make it.
In his book Dictionary of Catch Phrases: British and American (first published in 1977), the late, great phrase maven Eric Partridge speculated that “a wing and a prayer” was originally associated with the British Royal Air Force. He thought it might have been used by RAF pilots as early as 1940.
That’s possible. But there are no newspapers or other sources I could find online that used the phrase prior to 1943, which is when it was made famous by an American song said to be inspired by news stories about an American bomber crew.
On February 26, 1943, a B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber piloted by Hugh G. Ashcraft, Jr. of Charlotte, North Carolina was limping back from a bombing mission in Germany to an American base in England. The plane, dubbed The Southern Comfort by its crew, was riddled with flak and had one engine missing.
As they approached the shores of Britain, Ashcraft reportedly told his crew: “Those who want to, please pray.”
The Southern Comfort made it to the base, generating news in Ashcraft’s home state of North Carolina and elsewhere about the crew that “prayed” their plane back. Ashcraft became something of a celebrity. And, after the war, he became the first president of the Harris Teeter chain of supermarkets.
Adamson, the lyricist, came up with words “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer.” The phrase was used as the title of the song and in the chorus, which goes like this:
“Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.
Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.
Though there’s one motor gone, we can still carry on,
Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.”
The first well-known version of the song, recorded by The Song Spinners, was released in June of 1943.
It quickly became a hit and the song was then covered by a long list of other singers, groups and bands.
One of the hippest versions was by a black vocal group from Missouri called The Four Vagabonds, which you can listen to on YouTube. (I also love the version by Ry Cooder, on his album Boomer's Story.)
It was the fame of this song that embedded “a wing and a prayer” in our language. And, it’s a phrase that’s still familiar to most people even if they have never heard the song or the story behind it.
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Further reading about phrases and slang from World War II…