Wednesday, April 23, 2014


As I prepare for a panel on secondary trauma at the American Association of Law Schools Clinical Conference in Chicago, I wondered about the definitions and origin of the word “vicarious,” as in vicarious suffering and vicarious resiliency.  I guess I should not have been surprised that the word’s root is, indeed, "vicar."  A vicar presumably represents something or someone else, perhaps something sacred.  An unsurprising definition of vicarious found in the Oxford English Dictionary is “performed or achieved . . . by one person, etc., on behalf of another.”

But I just have never linked the words “vicarious” and vicar, as obvious at it seems.  “Vicar” conjures up the image of a priest dressed in black with a collar.  But taking a step back, if to be a vicar is to be the representative of the sacred, than perhaps when we and our students meet our clients we should see them as the embodiment of the sacred.  “Hello, Harriet,” says the student attorney to the client, “I will be your vicar.”  I know it sounds a bit dicey in light of the ongoing clergy sex abuse scandals, but looking at the core meaning of the word suggests the role of being a minister or a servant.  And the ongoing scandals should serve to remind us of how easily representational roles can be abused to the profound harm of those presumably being served.

Digging deeper into Oxford English Dictionary into the origins of the word, the Latin root of vicarious is vicis.  One meaning of vicis links to the notion of representation – i.e., “stead” or “office.”  But it also means to “change” or “turn.”  So the word suggests not simply standing in the place of another, but also being an agent of change and transformation.  So perhaps "vicarious" is not such a bad word for lawyers and clinical teachers.  We are to not simply to be legal representatives, but also agents of change.  

Oxford English Dictonary Online, "Vicarious"

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