Placebo

11 08 2010

In a recent post on Language Log, Prof. Geoffrey Pullum muses upon the origin of the English “placebo”. A 1st singular future indicative of the Latin placere, “placebo” literally means “I will please”, but its present medical usage derives from a biblical quotation. The relevant passage is Psalms 116:9:

אתהלך לפני יהוה בארצות החיים
I shall walk before the LORD in the lands of the living.

The psalm is one of thanksgiving, in which the poet praises God for having spared him ignominy and death. Despite having been brought low and having been suffering greatly, the poet was proven incorrect in his estimation of others as being full of deceit, was subsequently reinstated to his former position, and now thanks God for all of his kindness. The verb that opens this particular exclamation, אתהלך, means “I will walk”. It is a 1st singular Hithpa’el imperfective, which most likely denotes frequentative movement, rather than movement towards a particular place. In that sense, the word opens itself up to a figurative reading. Consider its attestation in the Syriac Peshitta (recorded as 115:9; here transliterated for convenience):

דאשפר קדמיך אלהא בארעא דחיא
That I may be pleasing to you (lit. “before you”) in the land of the living.

The verb here (דאשפר) is a 1st singular Pa’el imperfective (with an attached relative pronoun), which likewise denotes frequentative action. In this sense, the translation “I will be righteous” is most likely the correct one. So too the Septuagint (in which, confusingly, the passage has become 114:9):

ευ͗αρεστησω ε͗ναντιον κυριον ε͗ν χωρᾳ ζωντων
I will be pleasing (lit. “well-taken”) before the LORD in the land of the living.

In this instance, the verb is a 1st singular future indicative of αι͑ρεω, with the prefix ευ͗-. If it has any subtlety of meaning beyond what is also communicated in the Syriac, that Hellenistic flourish is lost on my Semitic brain. If anything, it appears to me as though the translator of the verse in the Peshitta is of a mind with the translator of the verse in the Septuagint, and perhaps indebted to the same. So too in the Latin Vulgate (Ps 114:9), which appears to be a fairly straightforward translation of the Greek:

placebo Domino in regione vivorum
I will please the LORD in the land of the living.

Unlike the MT, but like the Septuagint and the Peshitta, the Vulgate renders בארצות (“in the lands of”) as a singular noun. My BHS – a friend to all those who seek to rewrite the corpus one verse at a time – notes this variation, as well as the fact that this particular genitive construction appears nowhere else within the biblical literature (although several constructions in the singular are attested). More important, however, is the fact that the Vulgate renders the verb as “placebo”: the 1st singular future indicative that we mentioned at the beginning of this post. How did “I will please” become a noun that denotes a medicinal substance with no medicinal properties beyond the psychological?

According to Prof. Pullum, and several of his resourceful correspondents, the Vulgate Psalm 114 (116 in the MT; 115 in the Peshitta) constitutes the first reading in the Catholic “Office of the Dead” ritual. According to an entry on Wikipedia, the congregation then recites verse 9 as the antiphon. This usage of the verse apparantly led to the word “placebo” coming to denote the attendant of a funeral, the singers at a funeral, those who apparantly mimed their grief in order to be fed, those who pretended to something in the hope of any gain at all, and eventually an object that pretended to medical significance without actually containing any medicinal properties. I find this all very difficult to fully accept, but note the cognate formation of “nocebo” (“a psychological or psychosomatic factor that engenders or exacerbates an illness”, acc. to the Oxford American Dictionary), which is apparantly sometimes used to refer to the adverse affects of taking a placebo. Perhaps because the patient was genuinely ill.

In any case, the present (Israeli) Hebrew word is אינבו (“einbo“), which shares its final syllable with the English word but which means, quite literally, “there’s nothing in it”.


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2 responses

15 08 2010
Daniel

I’ve never heard אינבו used and one dictionary I consulted didn’t even recognise it (another one did, so you’ve got a 50% strike rate). More common is פלצבו.

16 08 2010
Simon Holloway

Thanks for that! My Oxford Hebrew-English Dictionary (1995) lists it as אינבו only. When I check Morphix, they list פלצבו as the Hebrew translation of “placebo”, and “placebo” as the English translation of אינבו. I like אינבו as a translation, but I can see why a transliteration might be preferred.

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