Does the work "quack" to describe a charlatan or medical kook, come from the word quicksilver (mercury)?

I heard doctors would inject mercury in sick patients to destroy malignant cells, and as a result, the patients would get even more sick, their hair would fall out, etc. Thus these doctors were reputed "quacks."

Is this a folk etymology, or is there real basis to it?

  • 1
    Dawkins in the God delusion suggested that homeopathy caught on easily because it didn't harm patients in an age where mainstream medicine caused much harm. It's certainly believable on the surface.
    – user11643
    Jul 16, 2016 at 4:26
  • This claim can be found here where it references The Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine Vol. 11, 4th Quarter 1996 where is written: The German word for “quicksilver” was “quecksilber”.American dentists shortened it to “quack” to describe the amalgam-hucksters...
    – Piro
    Jun 19, 2019 at 4:55

1 Answer 1


It appears that it has a different origin - quacksalver - Kwakzalver in contemporary Dutch literally meaning "hawker of salve"

In the middle ages Quack meant shouting - as these people would be at the market-place shouting to hawk their wares.

And taken from: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Quackery

"Quack" derives from the 17th century word "quacksalver", in turn from the Dutch word kwakzalver (hawker of salve). Both "quack" and "kwak" originate from the Middle Dutch quacken (to brag or boast). Quacksalvers would appear in town markets offering cure-alls in bottles to anyone gullible enough to part with their money.

Although you are right about mercury being used in ways which seem odd to us now, this is not the etymology of "quack" .

Off topic: I can't resist telling this, but there was an old saying: "You spend one night with Venus, then you must spend four nights with Mercury" as mercury was used against sexually transmitted diseases by injecting it into the bladder, or via the urethra.

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