Cup tips and commonly confused words: rein and reign

In celebration of the world’s greatest horseracing festival here in Melbourne – just over a kilometre, in fact, from where I sit right now – I am taking an equine theme this month for commonly confused words.

There is a third homophone (or word that sounds the same) for this pair: rain. For some reason, rain is never confused with the other two, but more and more I see instances of rein and reign being confused.

A rein is the long strap, connected to the bridle, that a rider uses to control a horse (there are usually two reins, joined into one strap; despite being joined into one piece, they are referred to collectively as the reins). To reign is to rule as a monarch or other ruler; the same word is also a noun: The reign of Ranavalova I of Madagascar was noted for her brutality.

There are a number of expressions related to riding a horse that use the term rein and that are still used metaphorically (as well as literally):

  • to take up the reins
  • hold the reins
  • grip the reins
  • drop the reins
  • a loose rein
  • a tight rein
  • a firm rein
  • free rein
  • a long rein
  • a short rein
  • rein in

What helps distinguish these is perhaps the idea that they relate to picking up and holding, with greater or lesser degrees of tension, any type of rope connected to something else. The reign of a monarch (or prime minister or CEO or any other leader) may be described in many ways but this idea of slackness–tension (loose, firm, tight, short) is generally not used.

The overlap in the concepts that the two words convey probably explains some of the confusion but you can keep them straight if you remember that controlling something or someone is different from being a monarch. My theory is that, as we have lost over the last sixty years or so not just daily contact with horses but also – to a large extent – personal memory of working with horses, we have lost our understanding of what horse-related terms mean.

My Melbourne Cup tips: for some reason, I feel it is a favourite’s year. It is also a senior citizens’ year, with more than a third of the field aged 7 or more.  I really don’t think one of the old horses will win it, so my top tip is Humidor. I’m adding in Wall of Fire, Amelie’s Star and Red Cardinal (he ticks my main box for performance at the distance, but I am concerned about his speed).  The consensus seems to be that Marmelo is the best of the imports.  I’m tossing up between Nakeeta (who is 7), Johannes Vermeer (probably need to have at least one Lloyd Williams horse in the mix) and Big Duke for my final spot. I may just put all 8 in a box trifecta ($33.60 for 10%). If it pours down rain all day, then I’ll be backing Big Duke for sure, and adding in Gallante.

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Photo: © Quentin J. Lang/

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