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Quack

Q From Tom: I would like to know the origin of the word quack, as in the fake doctor.

A It’s an abbreviation of an old Dutch word that in the modern language is spelled kwakzalver. It comes from quack, an early modern Dutch word meaning a person who chatters or prattles (probably connected to the English word for the noise a duck makes), and salf, essentially the same word as our salve. So a quacksalver was somebody who boasted about the virtues of his remedies, so it later became attached to a person who claimed to have miraculous medications. The longer form was common in the sixteenth century, but it was abbreviated later. The similarity of the full-length word to quicksilver, or mercury, and the once common use of that element in medicine (especially to treat diseases such as syphilis), falsely suggests a link with the name. But there’s no connection.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 29 Jul. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 29 July 2000.