Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

12 January 2011


I have been marveling over—which is to say, doubting—a bit of recent health news: 59% of people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome who knew that, as part of a study, the doctor was merely giving them sugar pills for their condition reported relief from their symptoms. There are so many ways to interpret these findings. That merely being paid attention to by a doctor has a curative effect. Or that taking action about a medical problem—even if the action is merely participating in a study in which one is given sugar pills—tells the body to heal, and the body pays attention. That, by extension, taking action about any problem, no matter what the action is, has a potential curative effect. Or, the doubting side of me says, maybe Irritable Bowel Syndrome is not a physiological condition at all but a psychological one. Or maybe it's indeed a physiological ailment that tiny amounts of sugar somehow addresses. The only real conclusion I have so far come to is that the brain is a mystery. Such a mystery.

Somewhere in the course of my ponderings, though, I looked up the etymology of the word placebo. Whoa! It is the first word of a response in Latin that mourners repeat in a traditional Catholic service for the dead and came to refer to the whole service. The response itself is the Latin Vulgate translation of Psalm 116:9, “Placebo Domino in regione vivorum,” which in English is “I will please the Lord in the land of the living.” This is also how the line was translated in the Douay-Rheims, a Catholic Bible translation based on the Vulgate that was published around the same time as the King James Version. In most other translations—all Protestant translationsi as well as the New American Standard version currently popular among Catholics—the verse reads something like “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”

How the word placebo came to mean what it means today is a curious tale. Apparently, people crashed funerals in medieval times, and these people came to be called, derisively, “placebo singers,” because they sang that repeated response in simulation of mourning in order to get at the food the mourning family provided. From there, with help from Chaucer, the word came to be used more generally in reference to flatterers and freeloaders and eventually to any pretence designed to “please” someone else—which in medicine would mean, as placebo is defined in my American Heritage Dictionary, “A substance containing no medication and given merely to humor a patient.”

I’d like to commit a semantic anachronism—a bad habit of people who preach, for example, that since our English word hilarious comes from the Greek word for cheerful, hilaron, then it must be that God loves a “hilarious giver” in 1 Corinthians 9:7—and read that weird Douay-Rheims translation of Psalm 116:9 as “I will humor God in the land of the living.” Such an odd idea, putting one over on God, but I kind of think that’s what I’m often trying to do. Singing placebo. And God knows it. And, incomprehensibly—as incomprehensibly as knowingly taking a placebo can cure Irritable Bowel Syndrome, as incomprehensibly as our brains work—God interprets my song as all the righteousness I’ll ever need.

Indeed, singing placebo is the essence of the verse on which I sailed into faith—“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1 TNIV). As in this verse, when one knowingly takes a placebo, hoping and knowing become synonymous, and—inexplicably—we are cured.


ali said...

i loved this. amen, and amen. how come "huh" and "dumb" are my only options for boxes to check? what about a "genius!" box? i would check that one.

ali said...

ps. a few of my friends and i have started up a blog where we'll post reflections on the KJV as we read it over the next year in celebration of its 400 anniversary in print. have a look if you like: http://kjb400.blogspot.com/