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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Of Charlatans, Mountebanks, and Cheap Jacks

This time last year, Wordlady investigated the word "toxin" and had a few choice words to say about "various charlatans seeking to separate us from our money by convincing us that our bodies are chock-full of 'toxins' that we need to 'cleanse'."

This got me wondering about the word "charlatan".  I am so happy it did, because I was led to the Oxford English Dictionary's delightfully Victorian entry for this word:
A mountebank or Cheap Jack who descants volubly to a crowd in the street; esp. an itinerant vendor of medicines who thus puffs his ‘science’ and drugs.
The etymology section of the entry is even more entertaining:
< French charlatan ‘a mountebanke, a cousening drug-seller, a pratling quack-salver, a tatler, babler’ (Cotgrave) [a French-English dictionary published in 1611],
< Italian ciarlatano = ciarlatore babbler, patterer, mountebank, < ciarlare to babble, patter, act the mountebank, < ciarla, chat, prattle

The entry does have this note: 

This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1889).

Who'da guessed?  Wouldn't every 21st-century lexicographer use "mountebank" and "Cheap Jack" as defining terms? (Fear not, the OED lexicographers will get around to revising this in the fullness of time.)

Of course, the meaning of "charlatan" has since broadened to include

An assuming empty pretender to knowledge or skill; a pretentious impostor.

No shortage of THEM around at the moment.

What about "mountebank"?
An itinerant charlatan who sold supposed medicines and remedies, frequently using various entertainments to attract a crowd of potential customers. Later also (more generally): an itinerant entertainer. Now chiefly hist.
Etymology: < Italian montambanco, montimbanco (late 17th cent.), contracted form of monta in banco (1598 in Florio [an Italian-English dictionary), lit. ‘mount on bench’, with reference to the raised platform used by itinerant salesmen

I don't know what it says about Italy that both of these words originated there.

"Cheap Jack" seems to have originated in mid-19th- century Britain and gone through a vogue for about 75 years, but has been petering away more recently.

Here's wishing you robust good health in 2018 so that you can avoid all "pratling quack-salvers"! 

Want to learn more fun facts about the language like this? I'm offering my Rollicking Story of the English Language course again starting January 17! You can sign up for the whole 8-week course or just drop in for the lecture(s) of your choice (so long as you book in advance). More info here:

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.