(n.) a liar, an untrustworthy swindler
Everybody knows what onomatopoeia is, of course. But when it comes to etymology, it’s easy to forget that there’s a lot more of it in the dictionary besides snap, crackle and pop. Quite a few words in fact—from pebbles to laughter to borborygmi, the Ancient Greek word for stomach rumbles—are believed to have been coined in an attempt to echo the sounds they relate to. And one more unexpected addition to that list is the word charlatan.
Nowadays, charltan tends to be used in a fairly general way to mean simply “liar” or “deceiver”. When it first appeared in the language in the early 1600s, however, its meaning was a little more precise. Here, we hand over to the Oxford English Dictionary, whose definition of this original charlatan—written in 1889 when the OED was still in its relative infancy—is better than anything we could possibly come up with:
A mountebank or Cheap Jack who descants volubly to a crowd in the street; esp. an itinerant vendor of medicines who thus puffs his “science” and drugs.
The original charlatan, then, was a quack doctor or pedlar of questionable medicines, who would stand before a suitably credulous audience and convince them—with considerably impressive blather or “puffery”—of the efficacy of his miracle cures.
That’s all well and good, of course, but how does that make charlatan an example of an onomatopoeic word? Well, to understand that, we need to head even further back in time.
Charlatan was borrowed into English from French, but French in turn took it from Italian. There, its roots lie in the Italian verb ciarla, meaning “to chatter” or “prattle”—and just like the words chatter and prattle in English, the Italian ciarla is meant to imitate onomatopoeically the sound of gabbling, blathering talk. The first charlatan, ultimately, was someone who literally “chattered” or “prattled” while trying to sell their questionable wares, and from there the word has steadily broadened over time to mean simply “liar” or “deceiver” today. And that’s the truth. Honest.