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Can a ‘regime’ be a ‘regimen’?

Q: I’ve always thought of a “regime” as an autocratic government, and a “regimen” as something like a diet or exercise plan. However, I often hear people refer to the latter as a “regime.” What is the difference between these two words?

A: The word “regime” can refer to either a government (especially an authoritarian one) or a systematic way of doing something, as in a diet or exercise regime. The word “regimen” once meant a government too, but now it usually means a regulated system for doing something.

In fact, both of these English words ultimately come from the same Latin source, regimen, either directly or by way of French.

In classical times the Latin word meant management, guidance, or guide, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and in the Middle Ages it came to mean a course of medical treatment.

The first of the words to appear in English writing was “regimen,” which was borrowed partly from Latin and partly from French in the 1300s, the OED says. It originally meant the regulation of diet, exercise, and other aspects of life that influence health, as well as a way of treatment.

The earliest citation in the dictionary is from Science of Cirurgie, a Middle English translation, written sometime before 1400, of a medical text by the Italian surgeon Lanfranc of Milan:

“Þou schalt kepe him wiþ good regimen, & he schal vse no metis ne drinkis þat engendrith scharp blood” (“Thou shall keep him on a good regimen, and he shall use no meat or drink that causes sharp blood”).

In the 15th century, “regimen,” came to mean the act of governing, according to the OED, and in the 17th century it meant a specific form of government.

Although the governing sense is now considered rare or obsolete, it occasionally shows up, as in this Oxford citation from the May 26, 2006, issue of the Washington Post: “My hope is that inside of the new political regimen, we develop a center, a left and a right.”

The word “regime,” borrowed directly from French, appeared in English writing in the 15th century, according to the OED.

Originally it meant “the regulation of aspects of life that affect a person’s health or welfare,” especially “a particular course of diet, exercise, medication, etc., prescribed or adopted for the restoration or preservation of health.”

The dictionary’s earliest written example is from a translation, dated around 1475, of Livre du Corps de Policie, a political work by the Italian-born French author Christine de Pisan (or Pizan):

“Wyse men … to that entent that they may leve in wellfar and in helthe, likethe theim to haue a regime for the preseruyng of the same.”

In the late 18th century, “regime” came to mean a “method or system of rule, governance, or control,” according to the OED, and in the early 20th century it took on the negative sense of an authoritarian government.

Both “regime” and “regimen” have several other contemporary senses derived from their Latin roots.

“Regime,” for example, can also mean something that occurs regularly, such as “a seasonal climate regime,” and “regimen” can mean a way of managing something, such as “a crop-rotation regimen.”

In case you’re wondering, “regiment,” another word dating from the 1300s, originally meant rule or governance, especially “royal authority,” the OED says. It didn’t mean a military body until the mid-1500s.

All of these words have a common ancestor that predates Latin. Etymologists have traced the origin to a prehistoric Indo-European root, reg-, meaning to go in a straight line and consequently to direct or to rule.

Descendants of this ancient root include the Latin regimen, regula (rule), and rex (king), as well as our words “rule,” “right,” “regular,” “regulate,” “rector,” “regent,” “regal,” “royal,” “raj,” “reign,” “regalia,” “rich,” and “direct.”

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