Word Confusion: Real versus Reel

Posted November 9, 2015 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Ah, history…with such an agrarian theme. Kinda punches up that contrast between real and unreal. Even if “unreal” isn’t part of the focus…*grin*…

The confusion over real and reel isn’t much of a confusion. For reals. It’s more that these two words have been catching my attention for the past few weeks, and I got curious. My besetting sin…*more grins*…

Reels do have a reality to them. In some ways, reels are more real than the real, what with all the philosophical, mathematical, and slang uses for real.

The contrast of words also has me remembering that old Memorex ad: Is it real or is it Memorex? Finding all those images of film and music reels, well, I couldn’t help but reel it all in together.

Word Confusions started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. Consider sharing this Word Confusion with friends by tweeting it.

Real Reel
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com

Man walking into a store with a box of apples

Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture (20111012-FNCS-LSC-0047) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A scanned image of a page from a book about apples

Image by Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s real apples brought in by Bigg Riggs Farm owner Calvin Riggleman versus a picture of apples. One is much more edible than the other.

A black-and-white image of a reel lawnmower

Image by Unknown is in the public domain and is an ad placed by Chadborn & Coldwell Manufacturing in Newburgh, New York, via Wikimedia Commons

A reel lawn mower, adapted from an illustration used in an advertisement in a 1888 issue of Garden and Forest.

Part of Grammar:
Adjective 1; Adverb 1; Noun 2
Noun as a plural: reais, reals
Noun; Verb, intransitive & transitive

Noun plural: reels
Third person present verb: reels
Past tense or past participle: reeled
Gerund or present participle: reeling

Actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact

Not imagined or supposed

  • Used to emphasize the significance or seriousness of a situation or circumstance
  • [Philosophy] Relating to something as it is, not merely as it may be described or distinguished

[Of a substance or thing] Not imitation or artificial


  • True or actual
  • [Attrib.; of a person or thing] Rightly so called
  • Proper

[Attrib.; informal] Complete

Utter (used for emphasis)

[Attrib.] Adjusted for changes in the value of money

Assessed by purchasing power

[Law] Of fixed property, i.e., land and buildings, as distinct from personal property

[Mathematics; of a number or quantity] Having no imaginary part

[Optics; of an image] Of a kind in which the light that forms it actually passes through it

Not virtual

[As submodifier; informal; chiefly North American]

  • Really
  • Very

The basic monetary unit of Brazil since 1994, equal to 100 centavos

  • A former coin and monetary unit of various Spanish-speaking countries
A cylinder on which film, wire, thread, or other flexible materials can be wound

  • A length of something wound onto a reel
  • A part of a movie
  • A device for winding and unwinding a line as required

A lively Scottish or Irish folk dance

  • A piece of music for a reel, typically in simple or duple time
  • Short for Virginia reel

Verb, intransitive:
Lose one’s balance and stagger or lurch violently

  • Feel very giddy, disoriented, or bewildered, typically as a result of an unexpected setback
  • [With adverbial of direction] Walk in a staggering or lurching manner, especially while drunk

Dance a reel

Verb, transitive:
[Reel something in] Wind a line onto a reel by turning the reel

  • Bring something attached to a line, especially a fish, toward one by turning a reel and winding in the line
Julius Caesar was a real person.

A story drawing on real events.

Her many illnesses, real and imaginary, have affected all our lives.

There is a real danger of civil war.

The competitive threat from overseas is very real.

“They think there can be nothing real — or at any rate nothing known to be real except minds and their thoughts and feelings.” – Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy

The earring was presumably real gold.

His real name is James.

This isn’t my real reason for coming.

He’s my idea of a real man.

Jamie is my only real friend.

The tour turned out to be a real disaster.

Real incomes had fallen by 30 percent.

It was an increase in real terms of 11.6 percent.

He lost nearly all of his real holdings.

A complex number is a number that can be expressed in the form a + bi, where a and b are real numbers and i is the imaginary unit, that satisfies the equation i2 = −1 (Wikipedia).

Since we can form an image on a piece of paper, we call this kind of image a real image (Optics 4 Kids).

My head hurts real bad.

You know it costs 150 reales, Ruiz.

We found some old film reels in the attic.

Did you find that reel of copper wire I was looking for?

In the final reel, he is transformed from unhinged sociopath into local hero.

Wait’ll you see my new fishing reel.

I don’t know how to dance any reels!?

He played us a reel on his fiddle.

Verb, intransitive:
He punched Connolly in the ear, sending him reeling.

She proceeded to reel off in rapid Italian the various dishes of the day.

She reeled back against the van.

The unaccustomed intake of alcohol made my head reel.

The nationalist government is already reeling from 225 percent monthly inflation.

The two reeled out of the bar arm in arm.

The dancers went reeling across the floor.

Verb, transitive:
He struck, and reeled in a good perch.

Noun: realness Noun: reeler
Phrasal Verb
reel something off
History of the Word:
1 Late Middle English as a legal term meaning relating to things, especially real property, from the Anglo-Norman French, which is from the late Latin realis, from Latin res meaning thing.
2 An adjective used as a noun from the Portuguese and Spanish, literally royal.
Old English hrēol, denoting a rotatory device on which spun thread is wound; it’s of unknown origin.

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C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?