[Ads-l] Linguistic problem in the medical field (;'-))

Mark Mandel mark.a.mandel at GMAIL.COM
Wed May 9 22:27:20 EDT 2018

imwitty quoted from an article
<https://www.knowablemagazine.org/article/mind/2017/rebranding-placebos> on
the "1st-ever meeting of the Society for Interdisciplinary Placebo Studies"
and the context preceding the meeting:
The well-documented, if often incidental, effects of placebos – drugs with
no active ingredients, or other shams concocted to better measure another
therapy’s effect – have triggered *[increased interest in how the placebo
effect and similar phenomena can affect health. But some are concerned
about the word "placebo" itself.]*

For starters, the name defies logic. “‘The placebo effect’ in and of itself
is an oxymoron,” *[clinical psychologist John]* Kelley *[of Harvard]* says.
“The placebo effect is the effect of something that has no effect. That
can’t be true.”

But "the effect of something that has no effect", while self-contradictory,
is an inaccurate description. A placebo has no *physiological* effect, but
taking it as instructed by a physician or scholar, like any other
experience, may well have a *psychological* effect.

I responded
I disagree ... If you're looking for what "placebo" means, you can take the
Latin literally: "I [the doctor] will please [the patient]". Though chosen
to indicate ineffectuality, the word simply means that the doctor is giving
the patient what the latter wants, and who knows, it might work.

imwitty wrote off-list
If you read the rest of the article (I attach its PDF), it becomes
absolutely clear that Kelley and 2 dozen of his colleagues are familiar
with the etymology of those terms. They just want to re-brand the
terminology, since the placebo and placebo effect, as well as the
definitions and the application of those terms for a few centuries are on
their way to big $$$$$ 😋

Laurence Horn wrote
Hmmm.  I always took it as the medication (whether actual medicine or sugar
pill), not the doctor, promising the patient “I will please”.

Margaret Winters...
Agreed - the doctor is testing the medication (or lack thereof) rather than
trying to please.


Do they think of it now only in terms of testing? I know it's widely used
that way, to implement a null hypothesis in testing, but is that its only
use? There's a lot more to medicine than experiment and report, and doctors
still treat insistent or reluctant patients. According to Etymonline  <
https://www.etymonline.com/word/placebo> (boldface emphasis added),
placebo (n.)

early 13c., name given to the rite of Vespers of the Office of the Dead, so
called from the opening of the first antiphon, "I will please the Lord in
the land of the living" (Psalms cxiv.9), from Latin placebo "I shall
please," future indicative of placere "to please" (see please). *Medical
sense is first recorded 1785, "a medicine given more to please than to
benefit the patient."* *Placebo effect* attested from 1900.

In any case, it's clear that "placebo" originally referred to the doctor's
intention in administering a supposedly ineffectual substance, not to
whether the treatment actually had an effect, whether mediated
physiologically or purely psychologically.

Kelley, in the article imwitty quotes, speaks as if he is unaware of the
origin of the word, and as if the only possible kind of effect involved is
a physiologically caused effect. And in my earlier hasty reply I neglected
the development of the word to include the experimental usage.

Mark Mandel

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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