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placebo (pluh-SEE-bo) noun

1. A substance having no medication (sugar pills, for example), prescribed merely to satisfy a patient or given in a clinical trial to compare and test the effectiveness of a drug.

2. Something (such as a remark or action) that is used to soothe someone but one that has no remedial value for what is causing the problem.

[From Latin placebo (I shall please), from Latin placere (to please).]

What does placebo have in common with placid, plea, pleasant, or complacent? All derive from Latin placere and refer to the sense of being agreeable.

Here's a detailed article from the Washington Post about the placebo effect: http://tinyurl.com/2la0


"Pregnant women undergoing controversial Aids drug trials at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital are fully aware that they stand a one-in-four chance of receiving a placebo." Swapna Prabhakaran, Mothers Give Support to Placebo Trials Relevancy, Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg, South Africa), Oct 3, 1997.

"It could only have happened in the South, where good manners are considered the highest form of virtue. The governor of Louisiana, Mike Foster, has decided that children these days don't show enough respect for their elders. His solution: pass a law to ban impoliteness. ... A law about conduct is just a sorry placebo for a host of deeply-rooted social problems." United States: And Sit Up Straight, The Economist (London), Jul 10, 1999.

This week's theme: words from medicine.


Beware the fury of the patient man. -John Dryden, poet and dramatist (1631-1700)

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