What Happens When Words Disappear? Part Three

An important word whose disappearance I have noticed is “mountebank”. Like my preceding examples, it is used wholly or mostly about men, though there seems no good reason why it should be. Spiritualism and fortune-telling is mostly a female enterprise, but of women the word seems rarely if ever used.

I did not know before checking that “mountebank” also means a Mexican card game; perhaps my vehement ill-will towards card-play, which I have nurtured since the age of about twelve, is why I am immune to what we now call “social engineering”. Someone who does not gamble is unlikely to give money to a con-man in the hope of obtaining many times more.

The term “con-man” is of course still extant, as are “swindler” and “fraudster”. We have even invented “bankster” on the model of the latter. I suspect, however, that “shyster” is on the way out, as is “grifter” and certainly “chancer”. These appellations are, however, somewhat wider than “mountebank”, who is a specifically medical or religious charlatan. An investment counsellor and Ponzi schemer will be a grifter but probably not a mountebank unless he claims supernatural sources for his hot tips.

If “mountebank” is now forgotten, how does it stand with “charlatan”? I suspect not well. Where I live used to have a Quacks Act prohibiting the practice of medicine without a licence; we no longer do, or at any rate not under that name, so that we are knee-deep in osteopaths and health-food stores peddling nostrums for whatever ailment you may mention to the uneducated staff. If only you could get the raw material you would probably find a market for “organic” plutonium – you could make a bomb, boom boom.

And if ever we needed words for medical and religious fakers it is now, during the covid pandemic. We have seen it all, from the injection of presidential bleach to preachermen telling their flocks that the Sky Man will protect them, and everything in between. This age of “alternative facts” is no time to be losing words for grifters specialised in quasi-medical mumbo-jumbo. If people have really forgotten “mountebank” it would be a good opportunity to revive it by calling as many of the charlatans out with it as possible. Any requests to explain the venerable word would give the remaining believers in science an opening.

Posted on January 3, 2022 at 14:44 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Some Notes On Language

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