Placebo

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I’m fascinated by the way words change over time.  I’ve seen several scientific reports lately on the use and effectiveness of “placebo” drugs – a scientific term for a sugar pill, or more formally an inert substance given instead of an actual drug.  Placebos are often used in double-blind clinical trials, on the control group.  Without checking statistics, I seem to recall that placebos can sometimes produce improvements in medical condition in 30-40% of patients using it – pretty impressive for an inert substance.

But I ran across the word recently in a totally different context.  I was researching the use of paid mourners in medieval funerals, for my recent post on The Mourners, and I found this quote in an article on the use of placebos in multiple sclerosis:

The word placebo derives from the Latin term “to please.”  The concept of a placebo comes from medieval times, when professional mourners were paid to stay by the bedside of deceased person, reciting a psalm beginning “Placebo Domino…” or “I shall please the Lord.”  “Placebo” gradually became the word used for the paid mourner, whose grief was, in fact, false.

Placebo Domino in regione vivorum” is part of the Roman Catholic Office of the Dead.  How did we get from a paid mourner at a medieval funeral to an inert substance that may produce positive result in 30-40% of cases?  The Wikipedia article on Placebo (at funeral) adds a little more detail:

In France, it was the custom for the mourning family to distribute largesse to the congregation immediately following the Office of the Dead ritual. As a consequence, distant relatives and other, unrelated, parasites would attend the ceremony, simulating great anguish and grief in the hope of, at least, being given food and drink.

So they weren’t always directly paid to mourn.  But because they sang “Placebo Domino” during the Office of the Dead for people they may not even have known, they were known as “placebo singers” and eventually merely as “placebos.”  Placebo became a general term for useless parasites.  By 1386 when Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales, “placebo” in England had come to mean a sycophant:

…this use seems to have arisen among those otherwise unaware of the words’s origin but who knew that the word is Latin for “I will please”.

One of the characters in The Parson’s Tale is named Placebo, a fawning toady who agrees with everything the story’s main character says.  The Wikipedia author conjectures that:

This may have helped to give “placebo” the English medical meaning of “simulator”.

The general Wikipedia article on the term placebo goes into more detail about modern medical uses of placebos and is worth reading if the subject interests you.

This entry was posted in Etymology.

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