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THERE ARE those of us who would argue that “charlatan” is too kind a word to describe the likes of Donald J. Trump. However, the word has such interesting etymology, and enough appropriate Trumpian linkages, that I include it in my growing collection of bamboozler, buffoon, bully pulpit, chaos, comparative mendacity, deception, demagogue, hypocrisy, idiot, mendacity, and witch hunt.
Merriam-Webster defines a charlatan as a “quack harming patients with dubious procedures” and “one making usually showy pretenses to knowledge or ability.” It quotes American political historian Alan Brinkley saying a charlatan is “willing to do and say virtually anything to remain in the spotlight.”
My favorite charlatan is Dulcamara, the quack patent medicine purveyor in Gaetano Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, The Elixir of Love. Dulcamara’s love potion, actually a bottle of cheap wine, gives shy Nemorino the confidence to woo wealthy landowner Adina.
Unknown to Nemorino, his uncle had died and left him a fortune, thus explaining the town’s young ladies instantly finding him attractive. In time, Adina falls in love with him as well, and all ends happily with townspeople lining up to buy Dulcamara’s elixir.
Would that life patterned itself more closely after opera buffa.
According to Merriam-Webster, the word “charlatan” has been in English since 1618, emphasizing that there were phonies, montebanks, and hoaxers even then. Its etymology traces back to the Italian village of Cerreto, reputedly known for its medical scoundrels in medieval times.
Which Cerreto? Wikipedia lists 19 of them in Italy, plus another in Croatia.
I suspect there was no lack of medical scoundrels either.
Anyway, the word ”cerretano,” an inhabitant of Cerreto, entered Italian as describing such a character. So the story goes, the Italian word for “chatter,” ciarlare, got associated with a cerretano’s spiel, and the result was a word shift to ciarlatano, the anglicization of which led to charlatan.
I checked The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971, and received similar erudition to Merriam-Webster’s. “A montebank, a cousening [archaic cozenning, deceiving] drug-seller, a prattling quack-salver.”
I like that last one.
Apparently charlatans weren’t limited to the medical profession: A 1670 citation reads, “I have discover’d something of a Charlatan in the behalf of my Bookseller.”
A 1690 reference summarizes, “Charlatans work Diseases to fit their Medicines, and not their Medicines Diseases.”
The OED sums up charlatan as “an assuming empty pretender to knowledge or skill; a pretentious imposter.”
Said Donald J. Trump, “I know words. I have the best words.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017