From the folks who brought you Collateralized Dust Bunnies.

Dear Word Detective: I am looking for the origin of the word “charlatan.” Thus far I have found its occurrence in early Italian usage and a possible link in Latin. Are there any roots going further back? In Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit? — Abbie Lipschutz, Houston, Texas.

Perhaps. We shall see. But before we delve into the details, I think we should take a moment to bask in the beauty of the word “charlatan” itself. It’s the pronunciation (“SHAR-lah-tan”) that really sings. “Charlatan” sounds as if it should be a kind of fine fabric or knit, or even an expensive automobile (“Like it, Kenny? It’s a twelve-cylinder Charlatan coupe, one of the only six ever made”).

charlatan08.pngUnfortunately, it was not to be. A “charlatan” is, of course, a crook, a con artist, an impostor, a quack, a promiser of one thing and deliverer of something quite different and invariably quite useless. “If “Charlatan” were really a car maker, its product would have four flat tires and twelve depressed hamsters under the hood.

While today we apply “charlatan” to any kind of con artist or “pitchman,” the original meaning of “charlatan,” when the term first appeared in English in the 17th century, was a patent medicine salesman, an itinerant seller of useless potions, liniments and cures. We also called such smooth-talking hucksters “quacksalvers” (from the “quacking” sound of their patter as they pushed their phony “salves”), a term eventually shortened to “quack.” An even older term for the species, “mountebank,” comes from the Italian “monta in banco,” literally “to climb up on the bench,” referring to the elevated platform from which the “quack” usually made his sales pitch. “Mountebank” and “quack” are both also used today in the more general senses of “con artist” and “fraud.”

The roots of “charlatan” are, perhaps fittingly, a bit obscure. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is derived from the Italian “ciarlatano,” meaning “babbler,” thought to be from “ciarla,” to prattle or chat, a word possibly formed in imitation of the sound of someone babbling. Etymologist Hugh Rawson, however, identifies “ciarlatano” as a mutation of “cerretano,” a seller of phony Papal indulgences, taken from the name of the Italian village of Cerretto, which supposedly produced many such con artists.

2 comments on this post.
  1. R Stafford:

    I was reading that the word Charlatan is difficult to find a root language for. Although the word itself does not show up in a Hebrew or Aramaic dictionary, the root words fit right in line with it. Char= worst quality, bad quality (and in slang means shit or excrement)
    Le/la= to (or to the)
    Tan= modern Hebrew for jackal, but in OT is synonymous with any scavenging animal that preys on the weak.

  2. Villainesse:

    I had to chortle when your earliest Italian/Latin definition comes from the cerretano folk of that poor little village. It would have to have been poor if its best source of income was cheating the Church! Anyway, if selling ‘fake indulgences’ is a charlatan act, isn’t selling the real papally endorsed indulgences even more charlatan? I prefer at least a bit of irony from a good charlatan, and if they’re going to sell something worthless, they should at least keep the profit for themselves!

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