The PLacebo effect by the English with Stephen podcast

Word Stories: Placebo effect

This is the transcript for the second English with Stephen podcast on the meaning of the phrase ‘placebo effect’.

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Hello and welcome. I’m Stephen Greene and this is English with Stephen, the podcast that gives you everything you need to learn English.

Today I am going to tell you a word story. In my word story episodes, I try to talk about the origin of a word or words. I look at how it started, what the original meaning was and how it is used nowadays.

And today I have a story about the word ‘placebo’. I am going to talk about what it means today, where the word originated from, and an extremely common word that is related to ‘placebo’.

All of that, after this.

A quick reminder, before we start, that it will help me a lot if you can write a short review or leave a rating of this podcast. It takes less than 2 minutes, but it really does help get the word out for other people to discover it. Thanks for your help if you are able to do this.

And so to the word ‘placebo’.

A placebo is often used when talking about medicine. When doctors are experimenting with drugs to cure diseases, one of the last things they do before putting the medicine on the market is run a trial. A trial is designed to see if the medicine is safe and if it works.

There are many types of trial depending on the circumstances. One type is called a ‘double-blind placebo-controlled trial’. When this trial is used, a number of volunteers are selected and half of them are given the real drug, and half are given a fake drug or a placebo. This placebo can be designed to look and taste like the real drug, but it is totally harmless to the person taking it.

This might sound cruel. After all, the people taking the placebo medicine might be really desperate for a cure. However, the reason to do this is that it is easy to see if the real medicine had any effect. For example, let’s say we give 100 people a new medicine and every patient is cured. Was it the medicine that had an effect, or was there something else? Maybe there was something ion the air, or the people were not really sick, or something else.

Now, if we give 50 people the real medicine, and 50 people the placebo, we have more information. If all 100 people are cured, then we know it wasn’t the medicine, but something else. If only the people taking the medicine are cured, then we know the medicine had an effect.

Sometimes, some of the people who took the placebo are cured and there is no obvious reason why. This is called ‘the placebo’ effect. When people believe that they have taken a medicine, their bodies can, occasionally, cure themselves.

This is not a new phenomenon. There is a story about the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Plato had a cure for headaches which was the leaf of a tree. However, you couldn’t just eat the leaf, you had to say some magic words at the same time. If you didn’t say the magic words, the leaf would not work.

Unless you believe in the power of magic, then this is an old example of a placebo effect. You think it is going to work, therefore, it works.

Plato would not have used the word ‘placebo’. The word ‘placebo’ comes from Latin and originally meant something like ‘I will be pleasing’. The idea is that you will please somebody else. In this context, there is a part of the Bible called the Psalms. These are holy or sacred songs and hymns.

In one of the psalms, there is a Latin phrase that says ‘placēbō Dominō in regiōne vīvōrum’, which in English is ‘I will please the Lord in the land of the living’. This phrase became very popular at funerals and other ceremonies to celebrate and remember people who had died. I think the reason for this is that the psalm reminds people that they only have a short time while they are still alive and so they should make god happy as much as possible.

Anyway, it was, and still is in many places, a custom that the relatives of the person who had died would provide food and drink to other guests. The people who came to the funeral would use the Latin phrase ‘placēbō Dominō in regiōne vīvōrum’ and then get free food and drink.

You can see where I am going with this, right?

Yes, of course. Very quickly, some people began to realise that they could just go to a funeral, even if they didn’t know the person, say the magic words and, hey presto, they would get food and drink.

In fact, this behaviour became so common that it was called ‘placēbō Dominō’. And so very quickly, ‘placebo’ was used to talk about something that was fake or false. Chaucer, an important English poet from the 1400s wrote about people ‘always singing Placebo’ so they could get free food. He even named one of his characters Placebo who, in the story will say anything that other people want to hear just so he can get an advantage.

In the 1700s, we see the idea of a placebo moving into the area of medicine with a person called Dr Placebo. The meaning seems to be that the doctor didn’t actually help with medicine, but he would sit next to the patient and talk to them and listen to their problems. So we could say he was a kind of ‘fake’ doctor.

And that is kind of the meaning that the word has today when talking about the fake or false medicine, and is also used when we talk about the famous ‘placebo effect’.

What is also interesting from this story is that ‘placebo’ has the same root as the modern English word ‘please’. ‘Please’ came from Latin, into French, and then from the French ‘plaisir’ in the 1300s. It meant something like ‘to satisfy’ somebody or make somebody happy or content. We can still this is in phrases like ‘if it pleases you’. In fact, the modern use of the word ‘please’ comes directly from this phrase.

For example, if I want to make a request, it is polite to say ‘Could you make me a cup of tea, please?’ Originally, the phrase would have been ‘Could you make me a cup of tea, if it pleases you?’ It’s just that we no longer use the complete phrase, just the ‘please’.

And now it is my turn to say ‘please’ to you, my dear listener, with my own request. It would please me a lot if you could remember to give a rating or a review of this podcast or my social media pages. It’s not for me, of course, but it helps to spread the word and the more positive ratings the more likely the podcast platforms are to recommend me to other people. So could you please, please leave a review or a rating?

Thank you very much for listening. I hope to speak to you again next week.

So long!

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