Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Daily Hump: Charlatans

Charlatans are frauds who often make elaborate claims of skill or knowledge in order to con their unassuming victims. The word has numerous synonyms and today we're going to examine a few.

First, let's look at the word charlatan itself. It's a word that came to English in the early 17th century via the French, who borrowed it from the Italian ciarlatano, which is a hybrid of ciarlare, "to prattle" and cerrentano, an inhabitiant of Cerreto. According to the American Heritage Dictionary Cerreto was a city once famous for its quacks.*

And speaking of quacks, in the above definition it's actually an abbreviation for quacksalver. Not to be confused with quicksilver (which is a future hump), quacksalver comes to us from 16th century Dutch where it was thought to mean "one who quacks about ointments." It has also been suggested that the quack- portion meant "to work in a bungling fashion", but that doesn't lend itself to as much humormous imagery.

Our final synonym is mountebank, a word of Italian origin that literally translates to "mount on a bench" and refers to the raised platforms used by the hawkers (see sketch at top). It's also synonymous with saltimbanco, which means "to leap on to a bench."

I leave you today with a dialogue from SNL:
Alex Trebek: ...And finally, Sean Connery's also here let's move on to Double Jeopardy where the categories -

Sean Connery: Not so fast Trebek.

Alex Trebek: I really thought that was going to work.

Sean Connery: Well, you were wrong, you mountebank. I pose a conundrum to ya, I riddle if you will

Alex Trebek: I don't want to hear it.

Sean Connery: What's the difference between you and a mallard with a cold? One's a sick duck and I can't remember how it ends, but your mother's a whore. [Laughs]
*I googled "Cerreto" trying to find out more about its quack addiction. None of the tourist sites mention anything about charlatans; it's just your usual prattle about beautiful Tuscan-like villas and medieval churches. When you google "Cerreto quacks" all you get are hundreds of websites quoting the exact same etymology for charlatan that I used above. Thankfully, after googling "cerreto history charlatans" the Historical Archives of Italian Nephrology pulled through via the US National Center for Biotechnology Information:
Cerreto is a tiny town in the Valnerine area (Umbria) famous all over the world for the phenomenon of charlatanism derived from Cerretani inhabitants. In the Middle Ages, these people started to beg for alms on hehalf of medical and religious foundations. When their occupation ended due to religious prohibition (Council of Trent) the Cerretani shifted to Charlatanism or quackery. The Charlatans exploited the absence of institutional medicine in rural areas and the credulity and superstition of many sick people. A cynical distrust of the medical profession in urban areas helped the charlatans' activity to spread. They delivered diagnostic advice and therapeutic remedies in public squares. Renal and bladder remedies were key cures from still earlier quackeries. Some historians of medicine believe that some rural or town citizens were particulalry addicted to panaceas or placebos. Charlatans from all over the world poured into the happy hunting grounds. Quackery flourished on a grand scale until education spread throughout the population and medical services were made available to the poor. Special laws to safeguard health-care, helped undermine the charlatan healing phenomenon. Popular quackery medicine neared its end in the mid twentieth century.
quacksalver [OED]
montebank [OED]
saltimbanco [OED]

Labels: , , ,

:: posted by David, 6:40 PM


That SNL skit is the best. Is that the one that also involves David Duchovney as Jeff Goldblum?
Blogger Loocite, at 11:56 AM  

Add a comment