Reign or Regime?

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I recently noticed this use of the word reign:

After Chretien resigned as Prime Minister, we learned of a new major scandal that occurred during his reign.

It surprised me because I attach the word reign to a royal personage, not an elected official.

For example,

El Greco to Velázquez: Art during the Reign of Philip III

Travels in England During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth

Historical Writing during the Reign of Shah Abbas:

Territorial expansion during the reign of Khan Krum

Regime, on the other hand, usually denotes a government, or a period during which a political party or perhaps a dictator is in control of a government. For example,

Foreign support for Venezuelan political exiles during the regime of Juan Vicente Gomez: the case of Mexico,1923-33.

The regime of President Ahmadinejad has allowed itself to intervene in the internal affairs of other

Power of Romances: Voices For and Against the Serbian Regime

Many Authors Were Only Tolerated by the Regime

Here are two definitions from the OED:

reign: Royal power or rule; kingdom, sovereignty; also transf. power or rule (of persons) comparable to that of a king.

regime: A manner, method, or system of rule or government; a system or institution having widespread influence or prevalence.

Both reign and regime suggest control, something most of us resent when other people exercise it over us. The OED entry includes this note with the definition of regime:

Now freq. applied disparagingly to a particular government or administration.

Both reign and regime can be button-pushing words. Lately I’ve noticed quite a few web headlines that use the word “reign” in connection with President Obama’s administration. This is neither ignorance nor accident.

Neutral: the Obama administration
Negative: the Obama regime
Inflammatory: the Obama reign

When used to describe the administration of a U.S. president, the word reign is a studied insult.

For fun I ran a “reign” search on four presidents. Here are the results in hits:

Obama’s reign 35,400
Bush’s reign 97,000
Carter’s reign 7,290
Reagan’s reign 19,500

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6 thoughts on “Reign or Regime?”

  1. Canada has a particular governmental structure. Under our constitution, the queen (or king) of England is the head of state. The premier of Canada is the representative of the queen regarding federal territories and matters as is each provincial prime minister is regarding his territory and provincial matters. Being an “extension” of the powers of the queen, the use of reign instead of regime for those leaders becomes understandable however surprising. Such is the case of almost every country part of the British Commonwealth.

  2. In the particular Canadian sense I’d imagine it would be understandable to refer to the reign of the Queen Herself, but I agree that it sounds at least strange to refer to those administering the government below the royal position with that appellation. The Premier and various Prime Ministers may be part of the governmental system, but they don’t reign; they serve elected terms of limited time. To me, this is where the term ‘reign’ is delineated. A reign to me implies power exercised in a controlling and unregulated manner. Though I know this is not technically descriptive of the Queen now, the historical meaning is evident as is the ancestry of the negative connotation it takes when applied to more representative forms of government.

  3. I basically tried to give an explanation of the application of the difference between both terms and certainly not a justification.

    This is what I love about the English language compared to, for example, the French language. The context in which a word is used contributes to the understanding of it’s exact meaning whereas in French you have to choose the exact word even before using it. In English, the context has a greater importance than a strict descriptive and immediat significance. A broader reference such as culture, associated period, etc., narrow down the possible terminology options a writer has. This was the main challenge I had to face in writing my current novel where most of the action happens in England during the late Victorian era. I noticed that he British linguistic “world” was quite different from it’s American counterpart within the same period particularly during the 19th century.

  4. Bernard, wherever did you get the idea that the Prime Minister of Canada represents Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth?

    HM is represented by the Governor General, or Gouverneure générale du Canada in the case of the incumbent Michaëlle Jean. Each Province has its own Lieutenant Governor.

    Your statement that “Being an “extension” of the powers of the queen, the use of reign instead of regime for those leaders becomes understandable” is quite wrong. It is neither understandable nor correct. Neither is it true to say “Such is the case of almost every country part of the British Commonwealth” as most do not have a Governor General.


  5. We’ve got a problem here, but I”l straighten it out for y’all.

    “During the reign of of QEII, the regime handed over the reins to the commoners, who instituted a different regimen’.”

    See? “Reign” = period of rule
    “Regime” = actions of the ruler
    “Reins” = method of control
    “Regime” = pattern of action .

    Got that? Now drop and give me twenty.

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