- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) an explanation or answer too broad to be of use
The other day, the word panchreston popped up on the HH feed:
In fact, it popped up the day after President Trump’s first solo press conference, but that, of course, was just a coincidence. (As was this, for that matter.)
But we digress. The earliest use of the word panchreston in English dates from the early seventeenth century—only back then, the word wasn’t used in quite the same way as it is today:
There are certaine Empericks or Quacksalvers in the world, that use a Pill they call Panchreston; that is, a medicine for every malady, a salve for every sore.
Edward Misselden, The Circle of Commerce (1623)
Originally a panchreston was a cure-all or panacea—a universal medicine capable of solving all ills and alleviating all disease. In that sense it derives from two Greek roots: pan, meaning “all” or “entirely” (as in pandemic and pandemonium), and chrestos, meaning “useful” or “serviceable” (as in chrestomathy, a nineteenth-century word for an anthology of literature used to aid the learning of a language).
In that original medical sense, panchreston—or rather, its Latin equivalent panchrestus—was first employed by the Roman physician Galen as far back as the second century AD, although he used the term as a nickname for one type of medicine in particular:
PANCHRESTUS ... An epithet for collyrium, described by Galen and so named for its general usefulness.
William Turton, A Medical Glossary (1802)
Collyrium is just an old-fashioned word for medicated eyewash. But for some reason Galen believed that eye salve had extraordinary healing powers, and ultimately worthy of being called a literal “cure-all”, or panchrestus. In reality, it’s unlikely that it would have been much use curing anything besides a bout of conjunctivitis—and it’s for that very good reason that the meaning of panchreston ultimately changed.
Although the word fell out of use towards the turn of the twentieth century, in 1956 it was rescued from relative obscurity by the American ecologist Garrett Hardin. In a paper entitled The Meaningless of the Word “Protoplasm”, Hardin lamented commonly-used words in the scientific vocabulary that don’t help to explain or elucidate difficult subjects, but only prove to complicate or muddy them:
Such enemies of thought, like all enemies, may be easier to spot if we label them. Such “explain-alls” need a name. As we borrow from the Greek to call a “cure-all” a panacea, so let us christen an “explain-all” a panchreston ... A panchreston, which “explains” all, explains nothing.
In resurrecting the word Galen gave to his questionable cure-all, Hardin gave us a word for a questionable term—and ultimately, a questionable theory, explanation, or answer—that attempts to be, or gives the impression of being, all-encompassing, despite the fact that it’s entirely without any real substance. And, perhaps, we have a contender for Word of the Year 2017 already.