Are horses and kings alike?

Hey, folks. This is another one of those discussions where there’s a mostly right answer to the question, but not a wholly definitive one. (Not to my mind, anyway. I know what I prefer, but that don’t make it right, as they say.) And that makes it especially fitting for Homophone Hell, because . . . there’s no way out. ::cackles::

The title should have clued you in pretty well. Is the phrase “free rein” or “free reign?” The answer is “yes.” (I sighed heavily as I typed that, just so you know.)

“Free rein” comes from the equestrian realm. It’s a rein held loosely, giving the horse relative freedom (until he’s reined in). The phrase can be applied to other entities as well, not just horses. A manager may be given free rein to make her own decisions, until her superior thinks she’s gone too far — at which point he reins her in.

See how tight those reins are? Not free rein. Not at all.
See how tight those reins are? Not free rein. Not at all.

“Free reign” is the alternate wording, and there’s a great discussion of it here at Daily Writing Tips. It discusses the process of conflation between “rein” and “reign” clearly, and give supporting evidence in the form of search-engine hits. “To reign” means “to wield the power of a king” — I can see how some folks made the jump from giving a horse (or a person, or a corporation, or a whatever) its freedom to do what it wants, but . . . anyway.  I won’t rehash the entire post. I will, however, offer the ending quote of the original post (there’s an addendum), with which I fully agree:

“I shall continue to write ‘free rein,’ but free reign is here to stay.”

::heavy sigh::

This dude has free rein to reign however he likes. I still can't bring myself to type "free reign," though. Sorry.
This dude has free rein to reign however he likes. I still can’t bring myself to type “free reign,” though. Sorry.

I have to credit Hubpager “Shadesbreath” for these images, because I swiped them from the Hub about this phrase. If you want to read a more in-depth treatment of these phrases, by all means go there and read it! It’s got dates and sources and everything. It’s wonderful.


One thought on “Are horses and kings alike?

  1. As an anonymous English wit Wodehouse quoted (a fellow member of one of P.G.’s clubs) opined: “There’s no such thing as a ‘free reign.’ Someone always has to pay for it. Usually a lot of someones, and sometimes with their necks, not just their purses.”


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