This story might be titled “Some Words Have a Reputation to Live Up To,” Part 2 (Part 3 will soon follow). While tracing the convoluted history of charade, I promised to devote some space to charlatan. The element char- unites them, and in scholarly works they have frequently been mentioned in one breath. Clearly, a charlatan knows how to dupe the public, and bringing him to book is hard. It proved to be equally hard to discover the origin of the word. Opinions on the etymology of charlatan are divided. Some reliable dictionaries say bluntly: “Of unknown origin,” while others offer, albeit cautiously, what seems to be a good hypothesis.
It will be remembered that feeble attempts have been made to trace charade to the game’s mythical inventor. Charlatan fared no better. An eighteenth-century Italian lexicographer connected it with Charle(magne); presumably, that emperor’s name was often used by street singers both east and west of the Alps. Then there is a story of Dr. Charleton, “a celebrated Physician in Charles II’s reign, who had the licensing of Quacks” and who said on his deathbed that “all the useful and successful cures performed by the Mountebanks of his time were solely owing to preparation of Mercury and Antimony.” Was he not the first charlatan? Perhaps not, for “in the olden time” another doctor, named Latan, lived in Paris. He used to travel about in a small wagon (char) and visit his patients at their homes. Whenever he appeared, people exclaimed: “Voila le char de Latan.” Through endless repetition, the phrase turned into charlatan; according to this bizarre guess, the word’s oldest meaning was “driving doctor.” Such pleasant nonsense circulated in popular magazines as late as the second half of the 19th century.
The word charlatan arose almost certainly in Italy, but it was recorded in 1311 in the form cerretano, which is not quite what we need. Moreover, cerretano competed with ceretano, ceratano, ciaratano, and several other variants, and there is no way of knowing which of them is original and which is especially important for reconstruction. The form ciarlatano appeared later. Its similarity to the verb ciarlare “babble, prattle” (most likely, an onomatopoeia like Engl. chirp) is obvious, but, although the connection between them may be real, it has not been established with desired clarity. The hitch is the existence of cerretano, which also needs an explanation: once we find out what that word means, we’ll perhaps be able to say that ciarlatano was changed under its influence. However, cerretano (if we stick to this form) is evasive, and there is a law that has never failed me: if, in order to account for the origin of an obscure word, recourse is made to another obscure word, the resulting etymology will be wrong. We are not allowed to refer to cerretano (about which we know nothing) in the hope of learning the history of ciarlatano. I call this law: “Say ‘no’ to obscurum per obscurius!” and like it very much, for I formulated it myself. Some people need little to discover a law (they may look at an apple falling from a tree and draw conclusions about the structure of the universe), but I think slowly. To sum up, in etymology, a meeting of two dark spots will not produce light.
To be sure, hypotheses about the origin of cerretano exist. The classical one, which was offered as early as 1904 and has been repeated by the authors of many dictionaries, connects cerretano with the place name Cerreto. Unfortunately, it is unclear which village or town is meant(several candidates, partly imaginary, have been proposed) and why its inhabitants became famous as impostors. As far as we can judge, ciarlatano first meant “mountebank” (here is another word borrowed from Italian: mountebanks cried their wares or advertised their skills from a high place; they “mounted a bench”) and only with time acquired the generalized sense “pretentious impostor.” Italian cerreto means “beech grove,” so that one is not surprised to find more than one place bearing such a simple name. The most familiar statement has it that the Cerreto in question is situated near Spoleto, whose people, notorious sellers of indulgences, were feared and hated for that reason. But the evidence for localizing the sought for village is slim.
Two more recent proposals disregard both ciarlare and cerretano and trace ciarlatano to a sound-imitative word from either Turkish or Byzantine Greek. Throughout history, foreigners were blamed for saying things no one can understand and for being brigands and cheats. Hence so many loanwords meaning “thief; liar,” and so forth Words for “noise” are also often borrowed. Such are brouhaha, hoopla, and probably hullabaloo, among others. But the first charlatans would hardly have been called yellers. The word slang, to which I once devoted a special blog, seems to owe its origin to the manner of peddlers’ speaking, but that meaning (assuming that my etymology is right) developed gradually. Quack, now a synonym for charlatan, first designated an ignorant pretender to mainly medical or surgical knowledge. It is a stub of quacksalver “one who sells his slaves by its patter, which is a borrowing of Early Modern Dutch quacksalver (now kwakzalver). Quack is another onomatopoeia, but, as happened in the history of slang, the path from quacking to the noun quack was not straight. Babbling loudly may have been the earliest charlatans’ conspicuous feature, but, arguably, not the most distinct one; also, the existence of cerretano cannot be ignored. English has charlatan from French, which borrowed it from Italian, and there it is lost, a usual way of all slang.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”