Saturday, August 16, 2008

Neither Quicksilver Not Quick-Solving

Another break from alphabetical order, I’m afraid, but one I liked too much to pass up. And when I say “liked too much,” I of course mean “wrote all of before I realized that I’d just done a “Q” word last week. In any case, this week’s word, which is largely notable only for its more popular, truncated form.
quacksalver (KWAK-sal-ver) — noun: an ignorant pretender to medical skills.
Obviously, this obsolete word gave us quack, which, when not referring to ducks, means basically what quacksalver meant. Before today, I’d never thought about the strangeness of using a term associated with waterfowl to call out a fraudulent doctor. Turns out the two are actually related. As Peter Bowler relates in The Superior Person’s Book of Words, the longer form of the word comes to us from the act of people chattering boastfully, or quacking, about his pseudo-medicinal wares, which could have likely included salves. As doctors today might well take offense to the term quack, Bowler recommends always using quacksalver, as it may “pass unchallenged in a roomful of doctors, who will probably assume that you are speaking of domestic silver.” Bowler doesn’t, however, explain why the word became truncated the way it did nor why the verb quack — which the American Heritage Dictionary claims came ultimately from imitation of the noise a duck makes — came to mean “boastful chattering.”

Wanting more background on this, I looked up quacksalver itself at the AHD and found something more: The word, which this dictionary defines more strictly — “a quack or charlatan,” implying that you could use it for any sort of faker — comes from obsolete Dutch. The first part was derived either from the Middle Dutch quacken, “to boast,” or quac-, “unguent.” (I’ll admit I had to look up unguent. It means “salve.”) The second part comes from the Middle Dutch salven, “to salve.”

Odd that there’s the disparity with the first part, and that the world could either mean “boast” or “salve,” especially since the latter would make quacksalver mean “salve salver.” Or something. The altogether generic-sounding encyclopedia.com notes that the Dutch word is now spelled kwakzalver, which I think is infinitely more fun to spell and look at. So good call on that one, Dutch-speakers.

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