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I see from Urbandictionary that there is a band named Placebo. There are several Urbandictionary entries praising this musical group so they must give their fans a lot of pleasure.
I am also reminded of a comedy routine by Steve Martin where he recommends this new drug he just tried, it’s called placebo.
Of course both of these uses of placebo draw on the fact that a placebo is a fake drug.
There’s a deeper joke in the etymology though.
Steve Martin was pretending that he had gotten such pleasure from this thing he thought was a drug that he wanted to recommend it to others.
The Classical Latin meaning of the word placebo is “I shall please.”
The roots of both please and placebo are the same and the American Heritage Dictionary takes them back to an Indo-European root plak that meant “to be flat.” The thinking seems to be along the lines that when the sea is flat it is calm and when things are calm they are pleasing.
When placebo first made an appearance in English it didn’t refer to either the fake drug or some pleasing nature. That was back in the early 1200s and at that time placebo was the name of a specific prayer to be recited on behalf of the dead. The reason the prayer was called placebo was simply that placebo was the first word uttered when reciting the prayer.
Within 100 years we see a new meaning to placebo.
Since people who excessively flatter others do so only to please and not because the really believe what they are saying, flatterers started to be called called placebos.
It wasn’t until more recently that the meaning we recognize came about.
Medical doctors have long been users of Latin and so when they prescribed medicine to a patient for their psychological good, even when they were confident that there would be no biochemical benefit, they called these drugs placebos.
This is seen first in the written record in 1785.
The meaning of placebo flipped some time during the mid 1900s. No longer a medicine with no pharmaceutical activity, given only to please the patient, placebo became a non-drug per se, one that specifically had no effect, regardless of the patient’s pleasure or pain.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.