Chrysti The Wordsmith: Quack


Quacks, or pretenders to medical knowledge, have been

practicing their deceptions for centuries. In the 1500s, for example,

quack physicians prescribed “philosopher’s egg,” an egg pricked and

blown out, then refilled with saffron, as a cure for the bubonic plague.

Early American history is full of stories of traveling medicine

salesmen who advertised nostrums, concoctions and ointments

“guaranteed” to cure every physical complaint.

Quackery follows us into the digital age with spam-offered cures

for obesity, wrinkles and undersized body parts.

How did the dispensers of useless ointments and treatments

come to be called quacks, and their pseudo-science quackery?

These words derive from the 16 th century Dutch term

kwakzalver, which referred to a medical charlatan. This word, in

turn, is a combination of the verb kwakken, to make the noise of a

duck, and zalf, meaning ointment or salve.

The kwakzalver, or quacksalver, was literally one who “quacked”

or boasted about his “salves.” This term is an apt verbal portrait of

the American snake oil merchant that hawked his cures with

evangelical zeal, then moved on to the next town before his imposture

was discovered.

The derived abbreviation quack is still used to refer to

unqualified medical practitioners, while quackery describes their

unscrupulous methods.