Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have exceptions and rules…
Q: Hi AWC, I’m having trouble with a regime.
A: Have you considered a coup?
Q: No, because the trouble I have is understanding the difference between “regime” and “regimen”. Can you help?
A: We can. For starters, one sounds more like “Beijing” and the other like “Benjamin”.
Q: Not very helpful.
A: Okay, well it’s true that they have similarities in meaning, but one is significantly older.
Q: Are we going to have to go back in time?
A: Yes, we are.
Q: Okay, let me get comfy. Right, I’m ready.
A: It all started with the Latin word “regere” – meaning “to rule, to direct, keep straight, guide”. That would later give us words like “regal” and “reign” and others like “region”, “regulate” and even “rectangle”.
Q: Sure, but what about OUR two words?
A: Ah yes. It also inspired the Old French “regimen” that arrived as the same “regimen” in English in the 1300s. Initially its definition was only in a medical context, as “a course of diet, exercise, etc. for sake of health”.
Q: So nothing about governments or ruling then?
A: Nope. That job was taken by the word “regiment” – which in the late 1300s mean “government, rule, authority, control,”. This definition died out, but the word stuck around and by the late 1500s was established as “a unit in an army” – the definition it still has today.
Q: So when did “regime” come along?
A: Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the 1500s.
Q: Funny “ha ha” or funny “odd”?
A: The second one. You see, during the mid-1400s, “regimen” decided to start meaning “the act of governing”. A ruling system was hereby known as a regimen. About the same time, “regime” entered the picture and it took up the meaning of “a course of diet, exercise, etc. for sake of health”.
Q: Waaaait, wasn’t that what “regimen” meant originally?
A: Yep. It was a mixed up, crazy time. The ‘Wild West’ of words if you will – where definitions could just ride into town and announce that there was only room for one.
Q: Gunfight at the Etymology Corral.
A: Exactly. So this game of swapsies is how things stayed for a few more centuries, until the French went and got all revolutionary.
Q: Oh, like in Les Miserables?
A: Actually, little known fact, but that’s not about the 1789 French Revolution, but rather the years leading up to the June Rebellion of 1832.
Q: Wow. I suppose next you’ll tell me the show Hamilton is actually about the life of Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton?
A: Um, no. Although Team MacLaren singing “You’ll Be Back” or a stirring rendition of “The Vrooom Where it Happens” could be quite fun!
Q: I think we’re losing our non-musical-theatre-loving readers…
A: Good point. Ahem. Anyway, in the late 1700s, with France becoming its own powder keg about to explode, the French term “ancien régime” became popular – as a way of referring to the old system of rule before it was overthrown. By 1792, “regime” – inspired by the French – came to mean a “system of government or rule, mode of management”.
Q: But what about “regimen”? Wasn’t it already doing that job?
A: It WAS also doing that job, and according to some dictionaries it continues to do that job. However, much like a deposed ruler who refuses to leave office, it is seldom called upon to perform such duties.
Q: It’s all a bit messy.
A: Yes it is. And many writers throughout the 19th century continued to use the two words interchangeably for both the governing and “diet and exercise” meanings. By the 20th century, “regime” had for the most part cornered the market on politics, in particular authoritarian ruling governments.
Q: And “regimen”?
A: It didn’t lose its ruling ambitions, but mostly slipped back into its original role as a plan or course to improve one’s health.
Q: So why all the confusion these days then?
A: Well, because of their mixed up histories, many purists continue to use both words interchangeably and most dictionaries will list both words with a similar list of meanings.
Q: Ugh. English is the WORST.
A: The silver lining is in what is chosen as the TOP entry for each. In the Macquarie Dictionary for example, “regime” lists “a system of rule or government” first. And “regimen” lists its first definition as “a regulated course of diet, exercise or manner of living, intended to preserve or restore health”, despite then going on to also list other ruling and government meanings.
Q: So they can both mean both things, but you should pick a lane?
A: Yep. It’s what America does particularly well. “Regime” is almost always for governments or ruling systems, while a “regimen” is a systematic plan you stick to.
Q: And outside America?
A: It’s not as clear cut, but we’d still recommend this option as it mirrors Macquarie’s stance. But just don’t be surprised to read about someone’s “skin care regime” or a new “political regimen” – especially in British publications.
A: All this reminds me of the conversation I had with my friend the other day. He lives under a totalitarian regime.
A: Oh really?
Q: Yes! I asked him what it was like.
A: What did he say?
Q: “Can’t complain…” Hahahaaaa.
A: Groan. Please go now.
Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!