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Why is a Fake Doctor Called a Quack?

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This nickname for people peddling fake cures and/or pretending to have medical skills they don’t actually possess has been around since at least the early 17th century. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the oldest recorded use in Francis Quarles’ 1638 book, Hieroglyphikes of the Life of Man: “Quack, leave thy trade; thy dealings are not right, thou tak’st our weighty gold, to give us light.”

Quack, in the sense of a medical impostor, is a shortening of the old Dutch quacksalver (spelled kwakzalver in the modern Dutch), which originally meant a person who cures with home remedies, and then came to mean one using false cures or knowledge.

The etymological trail gets muddy if you go any further back than that, and quacksalver has been traced variously to kwakken (to fling or throw down) + zalver (person who cures with ointments), quacsalven (a term for home remedies, from the 1300s), and quaken (to quack or croak) + salf (salve). Taken figuratively, the kwakken and quaken origins imply someone peddling and boasting about their medical wares, legitimate or not—a little broader, but not too far off from the modern usage.

Quacksalver’s similarity to quicksilver, or mercury—a heavy metal sometimes slipped into counterfeit medications—might suggest a connection between the two, but there doesn't seem to be any recorded evidence that the element led to the name.

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The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases
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Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?

1. BY THE SAME TOKEN

Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”

2. GET ON A SOAPBOX

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The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.

3. TOMFOOLERY

The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.

4. GO BANANAS

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The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”

5. RUN OF THE MILL

If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.

6. READ THE RIOT ACT

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When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.

7. HANDS DOWN

Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.

8. SILVER LINING

The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.

9. HAVE YOUR WORK CUT OUT

The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!

10. THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.

11. THE WHOLE SHEBANG

The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.

12. PUSH THE ENVELOPE

Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.

13. CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE

We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.

14. THE ACID TEST

Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.

15. GO HAYWIRE

What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.

16. CALLED ON THE CARPET

Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”

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21 Phrases You Use Without Realizing You're Quoting Shakespeare
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William Shakespeare devised new words and countless plot tropes that still appear in everyday life. Famous quotes from his plays are easily recognizable; phrases like "To be or not to be," "wherefore art thou, Romeo," and "et tu, Brute?" instantly evoke images of wooden stages and Elizabethan costumes. But an incredible number of lines from his plays have become so ingrained into modern vernacular that we no longer recognize them as lines from plays at all. Here are 21 phrases you use but may not have known came from the Bard of Avon.

1. "WILD GOOSE CHASE" // ROMEO AND JULIET, ACT II, SCENE IV

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"Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five. Was I with you there for the goose?" — Mercutio

This term didn't originally refer to actual geese, but rather a type of horse race.

2. "GREEN-EYED MONSTER" // OTHELLO, ACT III, SCENE III

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"O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on." — Iago

Before Shakespeare, the color green was most commonly associated with illness. Shakespeare turned the notion of being sick with jealousy into a metaphor that we still use today.

3. "PURE AS THE DRIVEN SNOW" // HAMLET, ACT III, SCENE I AND THE WINTER'S TALE, ACT IV, SCENE IV

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"Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go." — Hamlet

"Lawn as white as driven snow." — Autolycus

Though Shakespeare never actually used the full phrase "pure as the driven snow," both parts of it appear in his work. For the record, this simile works best right after the snow falls, and not a few hours later when tires and footprints turn it into brown slush.

4. "SEEN BETTER DAYS" // AS YOU LIKE IT, ACT II, SCENE VII

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"True is it that we have seen better days and have with holy bell been knolled to church, and sat at good men's feasts and wiped our eyes of drops that sacred pity hath engendered." — Duke Senior

The first recorded use of "seen better days" actually appeared in Sir Thomas More in 1590, but the play was written anonymously, and is often at least partially attributed to Shakespeare. We do know Shakespeare was a fan of the phrase; he uses "seen better days" in As You Like It, and then again in Timon of Athens.

5. "OFF WITH HIS HEAD" // RICHARD III, ACT III, SCENE IV

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"If? Thou protector of this damnèd strumpet, talk'st thou to me of "ifs"? Thou art a traitor—Off with his head." — Richard III

The Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland wasn't the first monarch with a penchant for liberating heads from bodies. Her famous catchphrase came from Shakespeare first.

6. "FOREVER AND A DAY" // AS YOU LIKE IT, ACT IV, SCENE I

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"Now tell me how long you would have her after you have possessed her." — Rosalind

"Forever and a day" — Orlando

We have the Bard to thank for this perfect fodder for Valentine's Day cards and middle school students' love songs.

7. "GOOD RIDDANCE" // TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, ACT II, SCENE I

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[Thersites exits]

"A good riddance." — Patroclus

Where would Green Day be without Shakespeare’s riposte? In addition to acoustic ballad titles, "good riddance" also applies well to exes, house pests (both human and insect), and in-laws.

8. "FAIR PLAY" // THE TEMPEST, ACT V, SCENE I

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"Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle, and I would call it fair play." — Miranda

Prospero's daughter never would have been able to predict that "fair play" is used more often now in sports than it is for the negotiation of kingdoms.

9. "LIE LOW" // MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, ACT V, SCENE I

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"If he could right himself with quarreling, some of us would lie low." — Antonio

Shakespeare's plays contain brilliant wisdom that still applies today. In "lie low," he concocted the perfect two-word PR advice for every celebrity embroiled in a scandal.

10. "IT'S GREEK TO ME" // JULIUS CAESAR, ACT I, SCENE II

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"Nay, an I tell you that, Ill ne'er look you i' the face again: but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me." — Casca

"It's all Greek to me” might possibly be the most intelligent way of telling someone that you have absolutely no idea what's going on.

11. "AS GOOD LUCK WOULD HAVE IT" // THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, ACT III, SCENE V

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“As good luck would have it, comes in one Mistress Page; gives intelligence of Ford's approach; and, in her invention and Ford's wife's distraction, they conveyed me into a buck-basket.” — Falstaff

Determining whether a Shakespeare play is a comedy or a tragedy can largely be boiled down to whether good luck would have anything for the characters.

12. "YOU'VE GOT TO BE CRUEL TO BE KIND" // HAMLET, ACT III, SCENE IV

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"So, again, good night. I must be cruel only to be kind. Thus bad begins and worse remains behind." — Hamlet

Here’s an idiom that proves just because a character in a Shakespeare play said it doesn't necessarily mean it's always true. Hamlet probably isn't the best role model, especially given the whole accidentally-stabbing-someone-behind-a-curtain thing.

13. "LOVE IS BLIND" // THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, ACT II, SCENE VI

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"But love is blind, and lovers cannot see the pretty follies that themselves commit, for if they could Cupid himself would blush to see me thus transformèd to a boy." — Jessica

Chaucer actually wrote the phrase ("For loue is blynd alday and may nat see") in The Merchant’s Tale in 1405, but it didn't become popular and wasn't seen in print again until Shakespeare wrote it down. Now, "love is blind" serves as the three-word explanation for any seemingly unlikely couple.

14. "BE-ALL, END-ALL" // MACBETH, ACT I, SCENE VII

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"If the assassination could trammel up the consequence, and catch with his surcease success; that but this blow might be the be-all and the end-all here, but here, upon this bank and shoal of time, we’d jump the life to come." — Macbeth

Macbeth uses the phrase just as he’s thinking about assassinating King Duncan and, ironically, as anyone who's familiar with the play knows, the assassination doesn't turn out to be the "end all" after all.

15. "BREAK THE ICE" // THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, ACT I, SCENE II

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"If it be so, sir, that you are the man must stead us all, and me amongst the rest, and if you break the ice and do this feat, achieve the elder, set the younger free for our access, whose hap shall be to have her will not so graceless be to be ingrate." — Tranio (as Lucentio)

If you want to really break the ice, the phrase appears to have come from Thomas North, whose translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans provided much of the inspiration for Shakespeare's ancient word plays. This is a great meta "did you know" fact for getting to know someone at speed dating.

16. "HEART OF GOLD" // HENRY V, ACT IV, SCENE I

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"The king's a bawcock, and a heart of gold, a lad of life, an imp of fame, of parents good, of fist most valiant." — Pistol

Turns out, the phrase "heart of gold" existed before Douglas Adams used it as the name of the first spaceship to use the Infinite Improbability Drive in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

17. "KILL WITH KINDNESS" // THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, ACT IV, SCENE 1

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"This is a way to kill a wife with kindness, and thus I'll curb her mad and headstrong humor." — Petruchio

The Shakespeare canon would contain a lot fewer dead bodies if his characters all believed they should kill their enemies with kindness instead of knives and poison.

18. "KNOCK, KNOCK! WHO'S THERE?" // MACBETH, ACT II, SCENE III

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"Knock, knock! Who's there, in th' other devil’s name?" — Porter

Though high school students suffering through English class may disagree, Shakespeare was a master of humor in his works, writing both slapstick comedy and sophisticated wordplay. And, as the Porter scene in Macbeth illustrates, he's also the father of the knock-knock joke.

19. "LIVE LONG DAY" // JULIUS CAESAR, ACT I, SCENE I

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"To towers and windows, yea, to chimney tops, your infants in your arms, and there have sat the livelong day with patient expectation to see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome." — Mureless

Today, the phrase "live long day" is pretty much exclusively reserved for those who have been working on the railroad.

20. "YOU CAN HAVE TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING" // AS YOU LIKE IT, ACT IV, SCENE I

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"Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?— Come, sister, you shall be the priest and marry us.—Give me your hand, Orlando.—What do you say, sister?" — Rosalind

Modern readers often call Shakespeare a visionary, far ahead of his time. For example: he was able to write about desiring too much of a good thing 400 years before chocolate-hazelnut spread was widely available.

21. "THE GAME IS AFOOT" // HENRY V, ACT III, SCENE I

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"The game's afoot: follow your spirit, and upon this charge cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'" — King Henry V

Nope! It wasn't Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who coined this phrase—Sherlock Holmes' most famous catchphrase comes from Henry V, although both characters do often tend to find themselves around dead bodies.

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