Placebo (at funeral)
An obsolete usage of the word placebo was to mean someone who came to a funeral, claiming (often falsely) a connection with the deceased to try to get a share of any food and/or drink being handed out. This usage originated from the phrase "placebo Domino in regione vivorum" in the Roman Catholic Church's Office of the Dead ritual.
Origin and significance of "placebo Domino in regione vivorum"
By the eighth century, the Christian Church in the West had an established form and content of its Office of the Dead ritual, taking the relevant verse from the Vulgate. At the end of each recited passage, the congregation made a response (antiphon) to each recitation. The celebrant’s first recitation was Psalm 116:1–9  (Psalm 114:1–9 in the Septuagint), and the congregation’s first responding antiphon was verse 9 of that Psalm.
Psalm 114:9 in the Vulgate says, "placebo Domino in regione vivorum" ("I will please the Lord in the land of the living"); the equivalent verse in English bibles is Psalm 116:9, "I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living".
The Vulgate verse follows the Greek Septuagint in meaning. The Christian scholar John Chrysostom (347–407) understood the verse to mean that "those who had departed [from this life] accompanied by good deeds ... [would] abide forever in high honor", and it was from this perspective that he chose to read the Septuagint as saying, "I shall be pleasing in the sight of the Lord in the land of the living" (εὐαρεστήσω ἐναντίον κυρίου ἐν χώρᾳ ζώντων), (Hill 1998, p. 87). See also Popper (1945), Shapiro (1968), Lasagna (1986), Aronson (1999), Jacobs (2000), and Walach (2003).
"Placebo singers" in French custom
In France, it was the custom for the mourning family to distribute largesse to the congregation immediately following the Office of the Dead ritual. As a consequence, distant relatives and other, unrelated, parasites would attend the ceremony, simulating great anguish and grief in the hope of, at least, being given food and drink.
The practice was so widespread that these parasites were soon recognized as the personification of all things useless, and were considered to be archetypical simulators. Because the grief simulators' first collective act was to chant "placebo Domino in regione vivorum", they were collectively labelled (in French) as either "placebo singers" or "singers of placebo"; they were so labelled because they sang the word "placebo", not because they were "choral placaters", using their song to please.
Adoption of the expression in English
By the time of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1386), the disparaging English expression "placebo singer", meaning a parasite or a sycophant, was well established in the English language. In Chaucer’s Parson’s Tale, for example, the Parson speaks of how flatterers (those who continuously "sing Placebo") are "the Devil’s Chaplains". (Perhaps Charles Darwin had Chaucer’s Parson in mind when he wrote: "What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature.")
The English word "placebo" also denoted a sycophant; this use seems to have arisen among those otherwise unaware of the words’s origin but who knew that the word is Latin for "I will please".
Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale contains a character called Placebo, and other significantly named characters:
- January: the old, blind knight, with hair as white as snow.
- May: his beautiful, lusty, and extremely young wife (and, thus, a January–May marriage).
- Justinus (the "noble man"): his correct and thoughtful brother, who strongly advised against the marriage of January to May (which also involved a considerable transfer of money, land, and wealth to May).
- Placebo (the "Yes man"): his sycophantic, flattering brother, who never once raised objection to any of January’s thoughts, and actively supports January's proposal.
This may have helped to give "placebo" the English medical meaning of "simulator".
In India, similar act of placebo is performed at funerals, especially in Rajasthan, by professional mourners called Rudali. They are usually females, wearing black drapery and perform the acts of crying on death of a person. In case, the deceased was a husband, Rudali wipe off the vermillion of the widow and remove all her decorative jewelleries which are the symbols of a married woman. The most important among these ornaments to remove is the mangalsutra.
This act of placebo has been an age old tradition. It is mostly prevalent among the Rajput and Jat clans on northern India.
- http://www.hebrewoldtestament.com/B19C116.htm#V9 or Green (1997), p.502.
- * Rahlfs (1935), p.128.