Dear Word Detective: I had an editorial guest column printed in the Galveston County Daily News recommending Proportional Voting as a method of electing City Council over the current “winner-take-all” method. In order to spear my idea, it seems, a commenter said that proportional voting is not the “panacea” that it appears. I know the comment is frequently used to discount or dismiss a suggested solution, but I don’t know how it came to be used that way. Can you help? — Curtiss Brown, Galveston Island, Near Texas.

Hmm. You threw me for a minute there, and I began to wonder if “Near Texas” was an actual place per se, the same way Far Tortuga (which is also an island) is. Since I’ve never been to Texas or good at geography (until recently I thought Alabama was north of Georgia), you folks could have been up to nearly anything down there and I wouldn’t know. But hey, aren’t online newspaper comments a wonderful invention? Now the cranks no longer have to figure out how to stick on a postage stamp, and can lounge in their jammies with oatmeal on their glasses while foaming at the rest of us.

“Panacea” is an interesting word for something that doesn’t exist. The story of “panacea” began with Roman mythology. The Roman god of medicine, Aesculapius (aka Asclepius), had seven daughters. One was Hygeia, whose name was based on “hygeis,”the Greek word for “health,” and who had, fittingly, the power to ward off disease and foster health. Hygeia’s name, as you’ve probably guessed, gave us the English word “hygiene.” Another daughter, Panacea, had the power of healing any disease or disorder. One might justifiably wonder what Panacea did all day if Hygeia was doing her job, but, in any case, “Panacea” (from the Greek “pan” all, plus “akeisthai,” to heal) became first a Latin and eventually an English word for a remedy or medicine that cures all diseases. The Romans thought that the “panacea” must be a plant, but Medieval alchemists spent much of their time searching for it in their laboratories when they weren’t trying to change lead into gold. (They failed at both tasks, but in merging medicine with the lust for gold they essentially invented the modern pharmaceutical industry.)

When “panacea” first appeared in English in the 16th century, it was in this literal “cure-all” medicinal sense, but by the early 17th century it was also being used in the figurative sense of “a policy or course of action that can solve any problem, ease any burden, or overcome any difficulty.” However, since a truly effective “panacea” in a figurative sense is as unlikely as the medicinal “panacea” of the alchemists’ search, the term has largely been used in negative constructions, i.e., in contexts where a supposed “panacea” failed to do the job (“Looser bailout terms no panacea for Portugal,” Ottawa Citizen, 5/04/11).

This “miraculous cure that won’t work” sense has proven a popular rhetorical tool for political arguments, the equivalent of terming an opponent’s suggestion a “magic wand” or “cure-all.” In many (if not most) cases it would be fair to label such charges as demagogic, since real life is not neatly divided into “miraculous solutions” and “utter failures,” and even a partial solution to a problem is often far better than doing nothing. Unfortunately, we live in the age of the sound-bite and the straw man is king, so I’m not holding my breath waiting for a cure for this “panacea-itis.”

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