You can tell an editor is ill when she mixes up her words...

getting your words right

During a recent consultation with our local GP, I accidentally mixed up the words “panacea” and “placebo” – which confirmed, in a way that nothing else could have, that I was not a well woman!

Joking apart though, it did give me the idea for a blog post that looked at a few oft-confused words, and my resolve was strengthened this evening when I saw the word “reign” instead of “rein” in an online article published by leading marketing journal The Drum.

Let’s look at “panacea” first – a Latin word, which was derived from Ancient Greek. Its original meaning was a remedy (in those days probably plant-based) which was able to cure all types of diseases, and even to prolong life.

Over time, the word also came to be used in a more general way to describe a solution or plan that would solve all problems, e.g. “The UN’s proposed scheme offered no panacea for the deep-rooted problems of poverty in the region, merely providing a basis for future discussions.”

Placebo is also a Latin word – a verb whose literal English translation is “I shall please”.  In medical terms, a placebo is a medicine or procedure with no therapeutic effect, which is prescribed purely for the psychological benefit of the patient rather than for any physiological effects. Often placebos are used as a control when testing new drugs, to ascertain whether the drug being tested has genuine therapeutic properties.

Two other words – homophones in this instance – which often cause a mix-up are “reign” and “rein”.  Now, if I had a fiver for every time I’ve spotted the phrase “to give free reign to…” in the UK press, you wouldn’t be reading this post. Why? Because I’d have already made my fortune and retired to the French Riviera, where I’d be happily sipping fresh orange juice and grenadine by the sea.

Perhaps my equestrian teenage years give me a certain advantage here, but the correct phrase is actually “to give free rein” to (no “g”, just a gee-gee!) and it means to loosen the reins, thereby allowing the horse to move as fast as it wishes.

Similarly, I often see the phrase “to reign in” written in articles (such as the one from The Drum, which I mentioned earlier). Here again, we’re dealing with an equestrian term – this time “rein in” (again without a “g”), which means to pull on the reins and cause the horse to slow down.

In other words, the only time you should use “reign” with a “g” is when you’re talking about the period of office of a monarch or other authority (“reign” – noun) or the act of being a monarch or in another position of authority (“to reign” – verb).

If you come across other examples of word confusion (perhaps with amusing consequences!), do post your suggestions on our Facebook page. We look forward to reading them soon! Meanwhile, try this very simple quiz featuring commonly confused words. Good luck…

 

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