Commonly Confused Words: Real vs. Reel

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What does each word mean?

If something is real, it means it can be treated as fact – it is not imaginary. Real estate is a term used to describe property. 

Here is real used in some example sentences:

  • At the end of the story, the puppet turned into a real boy.
  • I believe ghosts are real
  • Was King Arthur a real person?
  • She has a real estate empire.

Look up real in the Spellzone dictionary.

A reel is a cylinder onto which flexible materials can be wound, for example: film, fishing wire, thread, and tape. The word reel can be used as a verb to describe the act of winding something in (like a fishing line). 

On Instagram, the social media app inspired by vintage photography, a reel is a fifteen-second-long video made up of different clips and usually set to music or a voiceover.  

A reel is also a type of dance from the Scottish Highlands. 

Here is reel used in some example sentences:

  • The cinema uses a traditional reel and projector. 
  • I wound the thread around the reel.
  • She reeled in the fish. 
  • Have you seen the new reel I posted?
  • We danced a traditional reel.

Look up reel in the Spellzone dictionary.  


Where does each word come from?

Real has been used in English to mean ‘not imaginary’ since the early-fourteenth century and to mean ‘related to property or other things’ since the mid-fifteenth century. It comes from the Old French ‘reel’, from the Late Latin ‘realis’ meaning ‘actual’. ‘Realis’ comes from the Latin ‘res’ meaning ‘property’ or ‘thing’, and which comes from the PIE ‘Hreh-I’ meaning ‘wealth’ or ‘goods’.

Reel  comes from the Middle English ‘rele’, from the late Old English ‘hreol’. ‘Hreol’ comes from the Proto-Germanic ‘hrehulaz’ which is probably related to ‘hrægel’ meaning ‘garment’. The word has been used to describe fishing rod parts since 1726 and film projector apparatus since 1826. 

Reel in reference to the dance dates to the 1580s and likely gets its name from the similarity between the spinning movement in the dance and the turning of a reel.


Are there any tricks to help remember the difference between real and reel?

  • Think of actual as another word for real to help you remember reais spelt with an a.
  • Think of someone saying ‘cheese!’ when having their photograph taking to help you remember that a film reel is spelt with an ee.
  • Think someone fishing for eels to help you remember a fishing reel is spelt with an eel.


Learn more about the words real and reel in Unit 7.

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23 Jun 2022
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