Origin of the word
Panacea is a combination of two Greek words: ‘pan’ meaning ‘all’, and ‘akos’ meaning ‘remedy’. It is derived from the Greek ‘panakes’, which means ‘all-healing’. In Greek mythology, Panakeia was the goddess of universal healing; she was believed to have a potion that would cure any sickness or disease. The first known use of the word panacea in English was in 1548.
The word panacea is a noun that refers to the concept of a cure-all, something that will comprehensively resolve a problematic situation. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, many of the same alchemists who hoped to create an elixir for eternal life or to find a stone that would turn ordinary metal into gold also worked to discover the panacea — a medicine they believed would have the power to cure any disease. That remedy, of course, was never discovered, and so the word panacea evolved as a way to criticize the notion of a complete solution to a problem: “This specific course of treatment may be effective in this case, but there is no panacea for cancer.”
In her 2017 book Janesville, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amy Goldstein examines the case of an American heartland town deeply impacted by the 2008 shutting of a General Motors factory that once employed upwards of 9,000 people. For many of those workers made redundant by the closure, learning new skills was touted as a panacea for their predicament. They were encouraged to retrain with the promise that new and better jobs would be available to them. This solution, however, proved ineffective. Goldstein points out that unemployed workers who sought the panacea of retraining were less likely to have a job after completing their course than those who did not go back to school. If these workers did manage to find a new job, they often earned far less than workers who chose to forego retraining.
1. something that people think will solve all their problems
2. a medicine that can cure any illness