To Rein or to Reign?

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Henry IV, part 2, William Shakespeare

“Miss Teen America had her driving privileges reined in during her reign after she was caught speeding in the rain.” — Me

Confusing “reign” for “rein” is my pet peeve.

So many phrases are linked to our equestrian history, yet the modern writer may be unaware of how the horse influenced language.1  When we are able to do whatever we want, we have a “free rein.” When we cannot, we are “reined in.” There is no such thing as  a “free reign.” (I hate to write it down, even with strikethrough.) Shakespeare noted the philosophical impossibility of power without responsibility, but “free reign” is also just plain dreadful, horrible, depressingly common—and incorrect—English.  Likewise, we may want someone who abuses power to not reign at all, but they have to be “reined in,” not “reigned in.”

My handy dictionary2 explains that to reign, as a verb, indicates holding a title or a royal office, to predominate or prevail, or perhaps to simply be the best.3 The noun reign is the time when one holds office, or predominates, or is the champion.  We speak of the reign of Henry VIII, Miss America, or the winning Superbowl team. The word originates from Middle English by way of Old French back to the Latin regnum, related to reg or rex, the word for king.

More to the point, the dictionary also notes that “free reign” is incorrect use of the idiom describing freedom from direction or control.

Rein is another word that comes to us by way of Old French and Middle English:  it derives from the Latin rentinere, to retain.  As a verb, it refers to directing or controlling things.  As a noun, even non-horse people know that an actual rein is a long strap, usually of leather, that attaches to the bit that goes into a horse’s mouth.*  Usually there are two, one on each side. Reins are held by a person and used to guide a horse (or mule, or other animal).  Used colloquially, “free rein” means to be free of control and is an idiom that was directly derived from equestrianism.

So  when we give a horse a free rein, we are allowing the animal to act without our guidance.  We apply the same concept to human action.

Sometimes this is a good idea. When asking a horse to climb a steep hill it allows for maximum effort without interference. A free rein when standing at ease allows rest and relaxation. But other times a free rein is a very bad idea. Giving a horse a free rein without a preexisting understanding between horse and rider of the behavior expected may result in an out of control disaster—a horse could wander off, run away, or get into a spat with another horse. Horses and trouble are often very good friends.

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This horse is standing with a free rein. We presume the horse has been trained to know that the human would prefer the horse not go running off at this particular moment. 
Source: Pixabay cc-0 public domain.

The same is true of humans.  If we understand the norms and rules of society, we wind up with the most freedom.  If we misuse our freedom, we often face consequences.  For example, we do not “reign” over the highway; we cannot drive at any speed we want4 or on the wrong side of the road.  But within the parameters of traffic laws, we have “free rein” go to any destination we choose.

Riding is a metaphor for life in many ways.  Horsemanship is an art that requires us to learn when to take control and when to let it go.  When we pick up our reins, we ask a horse to respond to our signals—and the more clear our communication, the better the result.  When we relax the reins, we are engaging in an act of trust—that the horse will not take advantage of this freedom to dump us in the dirt and run off!

So, the moral to the story is that the “free rein” is not only proper use of an English idiom, but a good reminder for life.  When we “pick up the reins,” we take control—of a horse, of ourselves or of life circumstances.  When we “relax the reins,” freedom of action is allowed, but generally within a set of unspoken rules everyone involved is supposed to understand.

Copyright 2017 Brenda Wahler

Please read disclaimer

*Yes, reins can also be used with non-bitted headgear, such as hackamores.

  1. For more on the topic of how horse domestication influenced the Indo-European language group and the progress of civilization itself, I recommend: Anthony, David W. (2010) The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton University Press. isbn 978-0691148182.
  2. Definitions paraphrased by the author from “reign” and “rein,” New Oxford American Dictionary, Mac OSX 10.11.6 edition, accessed February 15, 2017
  3. Yes, sometimes I split infinitives.  I blame Star Trek.
  4. Legal note: Contrary to popular rumor, Montana does have a speed limit. We lacked a numerical speed limit for a few years when the national 55 mph speed limit was repealed. But after law enforcement begged the Montana legislature for relief from the constant arguments they endured from NASCAR wannabees on I-90 and from our friendly Canadian visitors on I-15,  we put numbers back on our highway signs.
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2 thoughts on “To Rein or to Reign?

  1. As you are well aware, Brenda, I would never, ever, ever make such a mistake. Even if I were to make such a mistake, I’m sure you would r* me in prior to publication!

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