When people heard the word “PLACEBO” back in the 1200s, there were no sugar pills or clinical trials. Actually, “placebo” had nothing at all to do with medicine back then. In reality, for members of the Roman Catholic Church (which was most folks back in those days), “placebo” would more likely have made them think about both God & death.
In Latin, “placebo” means “I will please”. “Placebo” was actually the very first word at the beginning of the “Vespers” portion of an evening prayer Catholics recited for folks who’d died, called the “Office for the Dead”. (FYI: The whole line was “I will please the Lord in the land of the living.”) It wasn’t long before folks were just saying the word “placebo” to refer to the prayer as a whole.
By the 1300s, though, placebo had taken on a secondary definition that, while different, stemmed from its original Latin meaning. Basically, at that time if you would’ve said someone was singing, making, or playing “placebo”, that would’ve implied that they were going way over-the-top the flatter someone else. Some folks would even just cut to the quick & call a person a “placebo” outright. Which, in that context, meant “a flatterer, sycophant, or parasite” according the Oxford English Dictionary.
It makes sense, then, that “placebo”, that flattery used to make someone feel good regardless of the truth, ultimately ended up in the world of medicine. It was in the 1700s that “placebo” came to define any drug or treatment intended to make someone feel better, even if it had no medical efficacy whatsoever. The phrase “placebo effect”, however, didn’t become common until a little while later, in the early 20th century.
The 1900s also saw the genesis of placebo’s evil twin, “nocebo”, which is Latin for “I will harm”. Literally the exact opposite of “placebo”, a medicinal “nocebo” is a worthless treatment that causes a patient to feel worse somehow. Thankfully, though, “nocebo” just hasn’t caught on in the same way “placebo” has. I wonder why? I mean…call me crazy, but maybe it’s because most people prefer to feel good instead of bad or worse. An off-the-wall suggestion, I know. But hey…at least now, hopefully, you feel good knowing where placebo came from & what it means today.
Now…wanna feel good about helping solve another Mundane Mystery in the near future? Message me with your question on my socials (@AndyWebbRadioVoice), or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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