• mountebank •
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. (Older sense) A purveyor of quack medicines who uses sweet talk and trickery to make sales. 2. (Current sense) A sophisticated swindler, a smooth talker who hoodwinks or bamboozles people out of their money.
Notes: Today's word is related to saltimbanco, with the same meaning, used into the first half of the 20th century. Saltimbanco originally meant "leap onto a bench" (see saltate, Word History). Saltimbanco faded away in the early part of the 20th century and was replaced by today's word. Mountebank may be used as a verb, as to mountebank among the hoity-toity, and mountebankery has been widely used to refer to the activities of a mountebank.
In Play: Mountebanks naturally gravitate toward money: "Bernie Madoff is one of the most sophisticated financial mountebanks of the 20th century." Television now brings the mountebank's bench right into our living rooms: "Henny Peckham worked for 17 years as a TV mountebank who hawked weight-loss pills to a gullible public."
Word History: This Good Word started out as Italian montambanco from the phrase monta in banco "to mount a bench", containing monta "mounts, gets up on" + banco "bench". The reference here is to itinerant salesmen who hawked their wares from a bench or other raised platform. Bank, the financial institution, took its name from the money-changer's bench or counter of times long past. In the original sense, bank mutated into banch and, finally, bench. Italian montare "mount, get up on" is obviously related to English mount and mountain, both borrowed from French, which makes it a distant cousin of mound.
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