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What is a Charlatan?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 21 July 2014
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Charlatan is an English loanword from French, which translates to a "seller of medicines." On further investigation it appears the French word may derive from an Italian term ciarlare which means fast-talking or prattling. A charlatan in the English sense is not merely a seller of medicines, but a seller of worthless medicines, who bases his/her claims to the efficacy of such medicine on untruthful claims or pseudoscience. Synonyms for the word charlatan include snake oil salesman, mountebank and quack.

Records of charlatan activity date back to the early 17th century. A particularly famous Parisian charlatan was Tabarin. He would set up elaborate shows, plays and pantomimes in order to hawk worthless medicines. Such shows functioned not only as way for charlatans to sell their wares, but also gave entertainment to the people. They often attracted crowds, and a few people in the crowds might be “planted,” working for the quack to make false claims about how miraculous a specific product was.

Charlatans in the New World were common indeed. Traveling salesmen, especially as the frontier expanded would move from settlement to settlement and with excellent skills as orators, would sell various cure all medications. A few sales pitches were so believable that people purchasing the product might find symptoms improving through the placebo effect. Good charlatans made their profits and quickly moved on, to avoid being thrown out of town for selling medicines that didn’t work.

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In modern times, the term charlatan takes on different connotations and refers to quack medicine in general. It may be a derogatory term leveled at those who practice alternative medicines, by those who take a traditional western approach to medicine. It can also refer to anyone who poses as medical personnel. For instance, the rise in charlatans in the plastic surgery world has been worth noting. People without real medical skills may offer Botox injections or others, usually not the real medicine, at very low prices, to take advantage of those who cannot afford to see a licensed physician for such treatments.

The traditional charlatan, the smooth talking salesperson, hasn’t disappeared completely. Yet now the standard medium for such a person is infomercials. It would be hard to accurately gauge the number of products sold by infomercials that have exaggerated claims and prey on people most in need of help. Sheer number of weight loss formulas, acne prevention, anti-aging creams, and a host of other products are difficult to count.

Physicians may occasionally endorse these products, but more often products are presented as effective by people who look like physicians, perhaps people wearing lab coats. Hour long programs are devoted to the latest cure-all, and appear to be leaning on legitimate science. It can be difficult to read the fine print on such commercials, such as those for weight loss products that work “when combined with diet and exercise.” The increase in infomercials for medical products has turned quackery into an industry, with many charlatans who are excellent at acting, and ready to sell the next useless product.

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