This won’t be news to anybody who speaks French, but the French word for “duck” is canard. I learned this when I saw confit de canard on a menu at a French restaurant. (Did that sound braggy? I didn’t mean it that way. I put on my very fancy pants one leg at a time, like everybody else. Then I adjust my monocle, put on a top hat, and go eat lunch at French restaurants.)
Anyway, I got to wondering whether the French word canard had any relation to the English word canard, meaning “a false report” or “a groundless rumor.” So I asked my old friend etymonline.com and found that, yes, the two words are very much related. In French, canard can mean “hoax” as well as “duck.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the French lexicographer Émile Littré traced this usage to an old expression vendre un canard à moitié, meaning “to half-sell a duck.” The OED entry adds, “In proof of this, [Littré] cites bailleur de canards, deliverer of ducks, utterer of canards.” The etymonline entry suggests, that the remarkable phrase “to half-sell a duck” may have come from a long-forgotten joke or anecdote. If you’re up for some audience-participation, I’d love to hear your guesses as to what that old joke or anecdote might have been. Send me an email with your reconstructed stories about the half-selling of ducks.
The astute among you may have already begun to wonder if any of this duckery relates to the English use of the word quack to refer to a purveyor of medical hoaxes. Quack is a shortening of the term quacksalver—that is, one who gathers a crowd and “quacks” about the salves and other medical products he has to sell.
Charlatan is a synonym for quack. Its meaning has broadened, however, to describe people who feign expertise in any field, whereas quack is almost always reserved for people who feign medical expertise. I was surprised to learn that charlatan may also have duck-related origins. It comes from the Italian ciarlatano, which derives from cialare, “to chatter or babble.” And the word cialare is possibly imitative of a duck’s quacking. (Compare chatter and twitter, both of which are imitative of bird sounds.)
While we’re on the subject of quacks and charlatans, I’ll mention the word mountebank, which means the same thing but is mostly obsolete. The word comes from mount (climb up) + banco (bench). The OED definition reads, “an itinerant quack who from an elevated platform [that is, a bench] appealed to his audience by means of stories, tricks, juggling, and the like, in which he was assisted by a professional clown or fool.” Samuel Johnson defined the mountebank as “a doctor that mounts a bench in the market, and boasts his infallible remedies and cures.”
The word toady also comes to us from the world of charlatans and mountebankery. A charlatan would sometimes employ an assistant to eat or pretend to eat toads. Toads were widely believed to be poisonous, so these toad-eaters provided charlatans with the opportunity to demonstrate their skills as expellers of poison. Toad-eater became toady, “a servile parasite, an interested flatterer; also a humble dependant” (OED).
Next week we’ll continue this tour of words related to stage-trickery. I’ve been listening to the audiobook of The Prestige, a novel about stage magicians, and it has sent me down a number of interesting etymological rabbit-trails.