Column: Regime and regimen

Question: I wonder if you have done a commentary on the use of regime and regimen. I often hear or read discussions of ‘performing a training (or workout) regime.’ I always thought a regime was a form of leadership and government whereas regimen was a protocol of sorts. Thanks for any input.” – (Mark Cutler)

Answer: Thanks for the question, Mark. It’s an interesting one, because the two words share an origin in the Latin regere, but have come to denote different things.

Let’s talk about their primary definitions first.

“Regime” refers to a form of government or a particular period of rule. A study of Vietnam might talk about the “Nixon regime,” for example.

We understand “regimen” to mean a plan or set of rules, especially one designed to improve the health of a patient. A diet and workout plan would be a regimen, as would be a doctor prescribing antibiotics, fluid and bed rest.

(Side note: Although “regimen” takes the form of “regiment” as a verb, nowadays we only use the noun form of “regiment” to mean a military unit.)

That seems all well and good, until you look further down their dictionary entries and see secondary definitions which cross over one another.

What you will find is that “regimen” used to mean “a system of rule or government” has fallen into disuse, while “regime” used to mean “a system or planned way of doing things” is still used.

So which to use? At the end of the day, “regimen” is your best choice if you want to describe a plan to get healthier, and “regime” is your best choice if you want to describe a government. Although “regime” has managed to retain more flexibility over the centuries, it comes with a connotation of authoritarianism, even when used as a substitute for “regimen” – so consider that when you’re thinking about spending a weekend at grandma’s house under her “regime” of ice cream and cookies.