It seems this word is used synonymously with home cures, whereas the definition is much more specific, and also more detracting.

The definition from Merriam-Webster:


a system for treating illnesses that uses very small amounts of substances that would in larger amounts produce symptoms of the illnesses in healthy people

I see a lot of "home remedies" that are billed as homeopathic (will cite if there's disagreement), but none not many that I've encountered would be considered a source that would "produce symptoms of the illness". Treatments that some might clearly question, like acupuncture or herbs, etc., are often billed as homeopathic. But even naysayers to acupuncture or most herbal remedies wouldn't say their applications would actually cause symptoms, much less the exact symptoms of the condition being treated.

in larger amounts

So, some herbs are clearly poisonous. However, given the vast array of applications, even if one would say a homeopathic herb is poisonous, how often does it cause the very condition the purveyor is trying to cure? I'd say rarely (see below for "Rhus Toxicodendron").

The definition is so specific about causing illness and (I guess implied) that it causes the same illness, that this word seems rather abundantly misused.

Is this a case of the dictionary being behind the times? Have I missed something between the definition and its application?


So, based on discussions, I want to just clarify that I'm generally asking, is this word, in practice, used more generally to refer to a wider scope of remedies that are more accurately described as holistic, non-western medical remedies like herbal, acupuncture, or "home remedies", etc. Is its formal definition too constrained given its usage, or is this a case of widespread misuse?


Homeopathic remedies for acne:


Two points on the types of cures: 1) the "remedies" certainly don't cause acne (i.e. does not "produce symptoms of the illness") and 2) there's really no emphasis either on using "small amounts" of the remedy.

Homeopathic remedies for poison ivy:


This page prescribes "Rhus Toxicodendron" which is poison ivy. So, in this sense it meets the definition provided by MW.


"Homeopaths prescribe Rhus tox. for a number of complaints including poison ivy, chicken pox, back pain , colds, herpes, hives , flu, mumps, measles, sore throat , nerve pain, muscle strains and sprains, dermatitis , arthritis, bursitis , carpal tunnel, rheumatism, and fevers." (http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/rhus-toxicodendron)

So, "homeopaths" are using poison ivy to cure/treat a wide array of "complaints" beyond what is a typical list of "symptoms of the illnesses [poison ivy] in healthy people".

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    Are writing from a US perspective, John? In the UK I don't think I've ever come across anyone mixing up homeopathy with any other form of complementary or alternative therapy. Certainly not mixing up homeopathy and herbalism.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 9:38
  • 1
    "how often does it cause the very condition the purveyor is trying to cure? I'd say rarely" - it depends on your understanding of the condition. Disease was poorly understood back then. There are plenty of substances that induce vomiting, lethargy, raised temperature, etc. If your disease model is primitive enough, it's easy to think of things that fit the bill. Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 13:22
  • @BoldBen, I am asking as an American. And AT-Fillet is asking for cites so I'm going to come up with some. Maybe it is a particularly American thing. It was possible that I was alone on this, but it appears from the discussion I'm not. That is, that 'homeopathic' is used in a more generic sense than the MW definition.
    – John
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 14:37
  • @Gnawme pointed out that this question is ambiguous. I understood it as "is that definition of homeopathy incorrect" while he understood it more among the line of "is that definition of homeopathy detracting". OP please clarify.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 15:02
  • 2
    @Agent_L, So, the questions are, "Is the word misused?" or "Is the dictionary definition too constrained?" or maybe "Is the dictionary definition out of date?"
    – John
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 15:05

3 Answers 3


EDIT @John, it's a case of widespread misuse. In the United States, both "homeopathy" and "phytotherapy" have their definitions established by their respective organizations. The regulation of homeopathy, however, varies widely throughout the world and, for this reason, there are quite a few non-standardized definitions. In addition, it's also natural that those who don't know their definitions should confuse all forms of "alternative medicine."

In the US, The Homœopathic Pharmacopœia of the United States defines what is homeopathy and lists the certified homeopathic preparations. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially recognizes the drugs included in the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia but "while the FDA has the authority to require the same pre-market demonstrations of safety and effectiveness for homeopathic preparations as it expects for drugs, it has declined to do so". The FDA motto "In God we trust, everybody else must bring data" certainly doesn't apply to homeopathic drugs.

  • Homeopathy is a pre-scientific practice based on two tenets: "like cures like," which holds that the correct remedy for a patient is a substance that, when given to a healthy person, produces symptoms similar to those of the patient; and "potentization," which holds that serial dilutions and "succussions" (shakings) render a "remedy" increasingly potent. Homeopathic preparations ("remedies") generally begin with minerals, plants, or animal substances that are pulverized, mixed with a water-alcohol solution, and then potentized, usually well past the point at which any of the original substance remains. The resulting diluent is applied to a sucrose pill and allowed to dry. Current evidence finds that homeopathic remedies are no more effective than placebo.


  1. Shang A, Huwiler-Müntener K, Nartey L, et al. Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy. Lancet 2005; 366:726.
  2. Linde K, Scholz M, Ramirez G, et al. Impact of study quality on outcome in placebo-controlled trials of homeopathy. J Clin Epidemiol 1999; 52:631.
  3. Ernst E. A systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy. Br J Clin Pharmacol 2002; 54:577.
  4. Ernst E. Homeopathy: what does the "best" evidence tell us? Med J Aust 2010; 192:458.
  • Phytotherapy is the study of the use of extracts of natural origin as medicines or health-promoting agents. Phytotherapy medicines differ from plant-derived medicines in standard pharmacology. Where standard pharmacology isolates an active compound from a given plant, phytotherapy aims to preserve the complexity of substances from a given plant with relatively less processing. Phytotherapy is distinct from homeopathy and anthroposophic medicine, and avoids mixing plant and synthetic bioactive substances. Traditional phytotherapy is a synonym for herbalism and regarded as alternative medicine by much of Western medicine. Although the medicinal and biological effects of many plant constituents such as alkaloids (morphine, atropine etc.) have been proven through clinical studies, there is debate about the efficacy and the place of phytotherapy in medical therapies. - from Wikipedia
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    Net-net: "Homeopathy" is quite frequently used inappropriately, at least when considering it's original definition.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 0:54
  • 17
    It didn't sound to me like the OP had mixed up these things, but rather the OP was wondering whether the conflation of these two things (and the conflation of homeopathy with other non-western-mainstream treatments and theories) was common enough that we could say the definition of homeopathy had actually shifted, from a descriptivist point of view.
    – 1006a
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 6:12
  • Many homoeopathic remedies "use" extracts of natural origin, so there is significant overlap. While some phytotherapathic therapies might actually beat placebos, homoeopathic ones certainly won't :)
    – OrangeDog
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 11:17
  • So, you're absolutely right that it mixes up different definitions, but that's the essence of the question. Is the word misused? Not by me (this time!) and that's how this question came to be. I looked it up to make sure I wasn't using it wrong, but it turns out I was about to. I'm going to try to come up with citations.
    – John
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 14:46
  • @John No matter what dictionaries say or what other sources say about it, the definition of "homeopathy" in the US is the one given by the HPUS. Likewise, the definition of "hypertension" is the one given by the American Heart Association.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 16:35

It's likely a case where, in trying to use neutral and concise language in their definition, Merriam-Webster comes off seeming disapproving instead.

Here's an excerpt from the definition of homeopathy from WebMD:

Homeopathy, or homeopathic medicine, is a medical philosophy and practice based on the idea that the body has the ability to heal itself. Homeopathy was founded in the late 1700s in Germany and has been widely practiced throughout Europe. Homeopathic medicine views symptoms of illness as normal responses of the body as it attempts to regain health.

Homeopathy is based on the idea that "like cures like." That is, if a substance causes a symptom in a healthy person, giving the person a very small amount of the same substance may cure the illness. In theory, a homeopathic dose enhances the body's normal healing and self-regulatory processes.

WebMD's second paragraph says much the same thing as Merriam-Webster's definition, but surrounds it with more context that makes the aim of homeopathy much clearer.

  • 3
    Merriam-Webster's definition is not disapproving in ANY way.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 9:01
  • 1
    @Agent_L It is in the OP's perception, which is what the question was about.
    – Gnawme
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 14:49

Is this a case of the dictionary being behind the times?

No. The proper term you're looking for is "alternative medicine". Homeopathy is one of many branches of alternative medicine. Acupuncture and partially herbalism you've mentioned, are examples of others branches.

However, at basic conceptual level, most of alternative medicine is allelopathic (directly causing a desirable effect fighting the illness) rather than homeopathic (causing tiny nudge in a wrong direction to mobilize organism to overcompensate and achieve desirable effect indirectly).

The mix up may be exacerbated in English due to similarity of words "home" (as in "homemade") and "homeo-". An example of false friends.

/edit: Please note that allelo- vs homeo- distinctions has nothing to do with modern vs traditional distinction. If we would have a person in fever, allelopathic approach would be to treat him with large (enough to be effective) dose of body temperature lowering drug or herb, while homeopathic approach is to treat him with minute dose of temperature raising drug or herb. Dose so small to be completely ineffective at raising the temperature. At the core of homeopathic thinking whenever the drug is "natural" or "big pharma" is irrelevant.

/edit 2:

Is the word misused?

Yes on the streets, but not in medical journals and acts of parliaments. There is ongoing debate whenever homeopathy should be treated on par with mainstream medicine, and people on both sides adhere to the strict meaning of the word, leaving general (allelopathic) herbalism out of discussion.

Is the dictionary definition too constrained?

No, it's merely precise.

Is the dictionary definition out of date?

Not yet. But if the misuse continues at larger scale, the definition will change.

  • I'm not actually looking for the proper term. I'm asking about homeopathy specifically.
    – John
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 15:06
  • I do agree that its misuse may be exacerbated because of its similarity to 'home'.
    – John
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 15:13

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