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Quack Doctors: Dutch Frauds

Good Monday morning to you all, Bologna followers!

I have an interesting one, made possible by request, so without any further delay, here we go.

Imagine you’re in the doctor’s office. You’ve been feeling under the weather & have a cough that’s been lingering for a while. Clearly something is wrong. The doctor comes in, checks you out & tells you to go home because you’re fine. You’re not fine; you’re sick & you know it. What a quack.

Quack is one of those lucky few slang words that has made its way into the dictionary. If you open a copy of or head over to Merriam-Webster & read through all the definitions which talk about noises ducks make, it’s there. The word is defined as: a pretender to medical skill. But wait; there’s more! It even comes in verb form, meaning if you’re a quack doctor, you can quack & give bad, or fake medical advice.

Anyway, we’ve lucked out again because the answer to where this one came from is actually really easy. Believe it or not, this has absolutely nothing to do with ducks. It does, however, have everything to do with the Dutch.

Quack comes from the Dutch word, kwakzalver, & it dates back to the 1500s. The literal translation of the word is “boaster who applies a salve,” & it’s is a reference to traveling medicine men. These guys would wander from town to town, peddling their remedies & ripping people off, by telling them they had the cure for anything & everything. In the English world, these medicine men were commonly known as as snake oil salesmen. Since there was no English word for for the phrase, kwakzalver was eventually adopted & anglicized to be “quacksalver.” Then, because saying, “Quacksalver,” is a mouthful, the second part was dropped, leaving, “quack.”

So, if you were to call a doctor a quack, you’re really calling them a Renaissance Era medical con man, & by default, a medical fraud. That’s a pretty serious charge.

Now you know; you’re welcome.

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Filed under Etymology