Real - reel

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Real and reel are homophones, both pronounced IPA: /rɪəl/. Don't confuse them.

  • The adjective real is derived from the Late Latin reālis, an adjective formed from the Classical Latin noun rēs ('thing'). Real is the adjectival equivalent of the abstract noun reality. Its central meaning is 'having objective, physical existence'; 'the thing itself'. From this, many secondary meanings have developed, some best explained by the opposites that are paired with real in particular contexts.
    • In ordinary life, real may be opposed to 'unreal, not actually existing, imaginary' (as in ‘Was Sherlock Holmes a real person or merely a fictional character?’); to ‘false, not true or not actual’ (as in ‘Was his poor state of health the real reason for his resignation or was that simply a pretext?’); and to ‘not genuine’ (as in ‘He has been a real friend to me’, i.e., He has done everything that could be expected of a friend and fully deserves to be called a friend.)
    • In Philosophy, real may be opposed to 'nominal', as in the distinction between real and nominal essences famously drawn by the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) ( The nominal essence of, e.g., gold, Locke explains, is ‘that complex idea the word gold stands for, let it be, for instance, a body yellow, of a certain weight, malleable, fusible, and fixed’, whereas the real essence of gold is ‘the constitution of the insensible parts of that body, on which those qualities [mentioned in the nominal essence] and all other properties of gold depend’. Thus a nominal essence is, roughly speaking, the meaning of a word, whereas a real essence is the fundamental nature of a thing. A related distinction is often drawn between real and nominal (or lexical) definitions: a real definition states a real essence, while a nominal definition states a nominal essence.
    • In Mathematics, real may be opposed to 'imaginary', as in the concept of imaginary numbers, i.e., numbers based on the impossible, or unreal, number √-1.
    • In Optics, real may be opposed to 'virtual' and applied to images: a real image derives directly from the object looked at, while a virtual image derives from the instrument (a mirror or a lens) by means of which the object itself is observed; or, more precisely, "if [an] image is seen at a point from which the rays appear to come to the observer, but do not actually do so, the image is called a virtual image" (A Dictionary of Physics).
    • In Economics real value is distinguished from nominal value. Nominal value is value calculated in strict monetary terms, whereas real value represents value in terms of purchasing power (i.e., monetary value adjusted to take account of inflation). Thus if over a period of time someone’s salary rose from £25000 per annum to £26000 (an increase of 4%), the nominal value of their salary has risen, but if over this same period there has been inflation of 5%, the real value of their salary has fallen, i.e., its purchasing power is less and it is worth less ‘in real terms’.
    • In Computer Science, virtual reality is a computer-generated environment that ‘seems real’, i.e., appears to the person who experiences it to have a close resemblance to reality.
    • There is also an obsolete adjective real meaning 'royal', 'kingly' or 'majestic. This is akin to the word used in the name of the Spanish football team Real Madrid (where real is pronounced in the Spanish way, 'ray-AL', IPA: /reɪ 'ɑːl or /re 'al//), as well as being cognate with the English 'royal': both are derived from Latin regālis, 'of a king'.
      • This is the origin of the noun 'a real', the name of several different coins minted for Spanish kings and, later, of an obsolete coin of Portugal. The word is in use in the former American colonies of these countries, such as Brazil and Mexico. In the forms riyal and rial, the word survives in various Middle Eastern countries; in the form riel, only in Cambodia.
  • Reel exists as three separate nouns in OED, which may nevertheless all be developments of the same word, and as three separate verbs: they all contain the notion of 'revolving'. As a noun, a reel may be
    • a winding device or implement; sometimes a tool or machine, but nowadays more commonly a type of cylinder on which thread and other cords may be wound for storage or use. Cotton reels are familiar to all who sew: they contain the thread which makes the stitches (the equivalent in a sewing machine, or other textile technology, may be a bobbin). In traditional (optical) film making, the filmstock is stored on reels, and early silent films are often described as two- (three-, five- etc) reelers according to the number of reels needed to show the full movie; similarly, one generation of sound-recording apparatus is described as reel-to-reel tape-recorders. Newspapers are printed from great reels of newsprint. Fishermen use reels to hold the line which they cast out; sailors use a reel for a hand-held log-line. Other cylinders that do not store cord exist, for example the 'wheels' that show the symbols on a 'slot-machine'.
    • The reel is a central type of especially Scottish country dancing. The essence seems to be of circles or a ring of couples (four couples in an eightsome reel), and turning in a 'figure of eight' interweaving loop (foursome (or Highland) reel).
    • The most obsolete, and rarest, noun reel is a Scots term meaning, in its latest incarnations, 'a staggering or whirling; spinning around' - often in collocation with 'drunken'. In earlier times, it had more violent connotations, "A commotion, tumult; a noisy disturbance, uproar; (also) a crash; a peal [as of bells, or thunder]" (OED).
  • As a verb, the three definitions of 'to reel' reflect the nouns above, and may share the same relationships.
    • To reel [something] in is to wind it onto a reel (in the first sense above). This is usually a line, but the verb may be used with extension to an object held by the line, as one may ‘reel in a plug’ by turning an extension reel of electric flex, or an angler may ‘reel in a fish’ by the reel on his rod. Figuratively, a confidence trickster can reel in a victim.
    • 'To reel' can also be 'to dance a reel (in the second sense above)'.
    • The most over-arching sense of 'to reel' has clear affinities with both of these verbs: 'to spin round'; 'to whirl'; 'to wheel round'. The earth reels on its axis; the constellations of stars reel round the poles; flocks of birds may reel in the air, and shoals of fish may reel in the sea - especially when the shoal senses a predator. Men may reel, or 'stagger' when hit - or when drunk; a whole building or ship may reel (stagger, or sway) from the impact of an explosion, and an entire army could reel from the shock of a charge, in the old days of hand-to-hand fighting. Mentally, one's senses may reel from intoxication, surprise or trauma - or even from the Coup de foudre effect of sudden overpowering attraction. In obsolete Scots usage, ‘to reel’ also meant 'to charge around in a riotous manner', 'to be unruly', 'to rampage', in this sense linked to the third noun reel above, and, like that, also used for bells pealing, or for thunderclaps.