rein » reign

Chiefly in:   take the reigns of power , free reign , reign in

Classification: English – nearly mainstream

Spotted in the wild:

  • The excesses of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero bled the imperial treasury, as the generals eventually grabbed the reigns of power. (The Moscow News, N 49 2004)
  • Following the 1984 general election, despite a landslide Labour victory, the outgoing National Prime Minister demonstrated a remarkable unwillingness to hand over the reigns of power. (Auckland District Law Society)
  • Free Reign for the Sole Superpower? (Boston Review article title)
  • The Muslim Council of Britain intend to seek immediate clarification from the government that expressions of support for Muslims overseas, such as Palestinians or the Chechens, would not be banned.
    However, Lord Falconer seemed to suggest that the law was being specifically drafted to reign in key individuals. “I think we know who we want to target in relation to this,” he said. (The Sunday Herald, Aug 7, 2005)
  • So eagerly anticipated is the annual game of “who’s minding the shop?” while the prime minister takes his August break, that this year the Sun published a “Prescott countdown” to the dreaded day when the deputy prime minister would take up the reigns of power - and, theoretically, have his finger on the button. (Guardian Unlimited, Matthew Tempest, Aug 13, 2002)
  • And yet we hear little about the aftermath of war in Iraq. Speculation abroad is rife. Will we seize Iraq’s oil fields? To whom do we hand the reigns of power after Saddam Hussein? Will our war result in attacks on Israel? (Guardian Unlimited, Robert Byrd, Feb 18, 2003)
  • As one imam put it to me: “Why has the Muslim community failed in reigning in their own youth and shaping their future? Why have the mosques failed to provide rigorous leadership? We must acknowledge our failure.” (Guardian Unlimited, Madeleine Bunting, July 14, 2005)
  • Born in rural Limpopo, Hlahla took over the reigns at Acsa in November 2001. She has been credited with the successful realigning of the company’s strategic direction, resulting in improved earnings and an accelerated and intensified transformation process. (Independent Online (South Africa), August 03, 2005)
  • Does anyone remember “Professor” Ward Churchill? Yet, each time “we the people” have attempted to pull the reigns in on these seditious individuals, the ACLU has grabbed them from us; only to warn us that if we attempt to stop these terrorists or terrorists-in-the-making, they will sue us. (The Conservative Voice, August 07, 2005)
  • The Roman Empire stood appalled:
    It dropped the reigns of peace and war (William Butler Yeats, lines 13-14 of "Two Songs from a Play", the play being "The Resurrection", 1931)

Analyzed or reported by:

Lee Rudolph contributed the example from Yeats on soc.motss. He explains:

> The eggcorn is present in the 1953 fifth printing of the first edition of the 1933 Collected
Poems, but not in the 1953 New Edition of the 1934 Collected Plays, and has been corrected without comment in the 1983 Collected Poems: A New Edition, edited by Richard J. Finneran,
whose stated intention in the preface is “to provide accurate texts”. I don’t know if we can assume it was a printer’s error, but there it is, big as life and twice as natural, and something between 74 and 52 years old.

As horses and carriages have become rare as a means of transport, the metaphor controling or restricting their movement with the help of reins has lost its transparency. The homophone _reign_, in the sense of the exercise of power, is in the process of supplanting it.

The thoroughness of the re-interpretation in the occurrences of the _rein_ > _reign_ substitution varies. _Free reign_ is entering mainstream usage. _Reigns of power_, on the other hand, only makes sense superficially; the plural remains unaccounted for.

See also [_reign»rain_](…) (as in _rain supreme_), [_rain»reign_](…) (as in _right as reign_) and rein»range .

[Update: 18 October 2007, Ben Zimmer] More about free rei(g)n on OUPblog here and here.

| link | entered by Chris Waigl, 2004/12/23 |


  1. 1

    Commentary by Arnold Zwicky , 2005/04/02 at 6:59 am

    James Cochrane, Between You and I, glancingly suggests eggcorning in “free reign”: “The term comes from horse-riding and should be spelled free rein and not free reign, although the latter phrase, presumably meaning ‘unhindered rule,’ may have possibilities.” Cochrane is a big fan of simple misspellings.

  2. 2

    Commentary by Arnold Zwicky , 2005/05/18 at 6:31 pm

    Now also see “rein” >> “range” as in “give free range”.

  3. 3

    Commentary by Arnold Zwicky , 2006/05/04 at 5:28 pm

    The reverse substitution, “reign” >> “rein” has now been attested. Ron Hardin on sci.lang, 4 May 2006, cites the following from Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post that day:

    The hard-liners don’t like President Bush’s guest-worker program, and on this issue, like so many others, gridlock seems to rein.

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