AskDefine | Define quack

Dictionary Definition

quack adj : medically unqualified; "a quack doctor" [syn: quack(a)]


1 an untrained person who pretends to be a physician and who dispenses medical advice
2 the harsh sound of a duck


1 utter quacking noises; "The ducks quacked"
2 act as a medical quack or a charlatan

User Contributed Dictionary





  • /kwæk/
  • Rhymes with: -æk


  1. The sound made by a duck.
    Did you hear that duck make a quack?
  2. A fraudulent healer or incompetent doctor of medicine, an impostor who claims to have qualifications to practice medicine.
    That doctor is nothing but a lousy quack!
  3. A charlatan.
  4. A doctor.


  • 1662: Rump: or an Exact Collection of the Choycest Poems and Songs Relating to Late Times, Vol. II, by ‘the most Eminent Wits’
    Tis hard to say, how much these Arse-wormes do urge us, We now need no Quack but these Jacks for to purge us, [...]
  • 1720: William Derham, Physico-theology
    After ſome Months, the Quack gets privately to Town, [...]


sound made by a duck
fraudulent or incompetent doctor of medicine
  • Dutch: kwakzalver
  • Finnish: puoskari
  • French: charlatan
  • German: Quacksalber
  • Greek: κομπογιαννίτης (kompoyannítis), αλμπάνης (albánis)
  • Italian: ciarlatano , medico empirico
  • Japanese: やぶ医者
  • Russian: шарлатан
  • Swedish: kvacksalvare
  • Dutch: kwakzalver
  • Finnish: huijari
  • French: charlatan
  • German: Quacksalber
  • Greek: τσαρλατάνος (tsarlatános)
  • Italian: ciarlatano
  • Japanese: ペテン師
  • Russian: шарлатан (šarlatán)


  1. falsely presented as having medicinal powers.
    Don't get your hopes up; that's quack medicine!


  1. To make a noise like a duck.
    The more breadcrumbs I threw on the ground, the more they quacked.
    Do you hear the ducks quack?


to make a noise like a duck

Extensive Definition

Quackery is a derogatory term used to describe unscientific medical practices. Random House Dictionary describes a "quack" as a "fraudulent or ignorant pretender to medical skill" or "a person who pretends, professionally or publicly, to have skill, knowledge, or qualifications he or she does not possess; a charlatan."
The word "quack" derives from the archaic word "quacksalver," of Dutch origin (spelled kwakzalver in contemporary Dutch), meaning "boaster who applies a salve." The meaning of the German word "quacksalber" is "questionable salesperson (literal translation: quack salver)." In the Middle Ages the word quack meant "shouting". The quacksalvers sold their wares on the market shouting in a loud voice.
"Health fraud" is often used as a synonym for quackery, but this use can be problematic, since quackery can exist without fraud, a word which implies deliberate deception.

The quacksalver

Unproven, usually ineffective, and sometimes dangerous medicines and treatments have been peddled throughout human history. Theatrical performances were sometimes mixed with purported medicine to enhance credibility.
Quack medicines often had no effective ingredients, while others, such as morphine and the like, made the patient feel better without curative properties. Some did have medicinal effects; for example mercury, silver and arsenic compounds may have helped some infections, willow bark contained salicylic acid (aspirin), quinine from bark was an effective treatment for malaria. Knowledge of appropriate use and dosage was poor.

History of quackery in the United States

With little understanding of the causes and mechanisms of illnesses, widely marketed "cures" (as opposed to locally produced and locally used remedies), often referred to as patent medicines, first came to prominence during the 17th and 18th centuries in Britain and the British colonies, including those in North America. Daffy's Elixir and Turlington's Balsam were among the first products to make use of branding (for example, by the use of highly distinctive containers) and mass marketing, in order to create and maintain markets. A similar process occurred in other countries of Europe around the same time, for example with the marketing of Eau de Cologne as a cure-all medicine by Johann Maria Farina and his imitators.
The later years of the 18th century saw an increase in the number of internationally marketed quack medicines, the majority of which were British in origin, and which were exported throughout the British Empire as well as the (by then independent) United States. So popularly successful were these treatments that by 1830 British parliamentary records list over 1,300 different "proprietary medicines", the majority of which can be described as "quack" cures today.
British patent medicines started to lose their dominance in the United States when they were denied access to the American market during the American Revolution, and lost further ground for the same reason during the War of 1812. From the early 19th century "home-grown" American brands started to fill the gap, reaching their peak in the years after the American Civil War. British medicines never regained their previous dominance in North America, and the subsequent era of mass marketing of American patent medicines is usually considered to have been a "golden age" of quackery in the United States. This was mirrored by similar growth in marketing of quack medicines elsewhere in the world.
In the United States, false medicines in this era were often denoted by the slang term snake oil, a reference to sales pitches for the false medicines which used claims that their exotic ingredients were responsible for the supposed results or benefits. Those who sold them were called "snake oil peddlers", and usually sold their medicines with a fervent pitch similar to a fire and brimstone religious sermon. They often accompanied other theatrical and entertainment productions that travelled as a road show from town to town, leaving quickly before the falseness of their medicine could be discovered. Not all quacks were restricted to such small-time businesses however, and a number, especially in the United States, became enormously wealthy through national and international sales of their products.
One among many examples is that of William Radam, a German immigrant to the USA who, in the 1880s, started to sell his "Microbe Killer" throughout the United States and, soon afterwards, in Britain and throughout the British colonies. His concoction was widely advertised as being able to "Cure All Diseases" (W. Radam, 1890) and this phrase was even embossed on the glass bottles the medicine was sold in. In fact, Radam's medicine was a therapeutically useless (and in large quantities actively poisonous) dilute solution of sulfuric acid, coloured with a little red wine.

Quackery in contemporary culture

Considered by many an archaic term, quackery is most often used to denote the peddling of the "cure-alls" described above. Quackery continues even today; it can be found in any culture and in every medical tradition. Unlike other advertising mediums, rapid advancements in communication through the Internet have opened doors for an unregulated market of quack cures and marketing campaigns rivaling the early 1900s. Most people with an e-mail account have experienced the marketing tactics of spamming — touting the newest current trend for miraculous remedies for "weight-loss" and "sexual enhancement," as well as outlets for unprescribed medicines of unknown quality.
For those in the practice of any medicine, to allege quackery is to level a serious objection to a particular form of practice. Most developed countries have a governmental agency, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US, whose purpose is to monitor and regulate the safety of medications as well as the claims made by the manufacturers of new and existing products, including drugs and nutritional supplements or vitamins. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also participates in some of these efforts. To better address less regulated products, in 2000, US President Clinton signed Executive Order 13147 that created the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine. In 2002, the commission's final report made several suggestions regarding education, research, implementation, and reimbursement as ways to evaluate the risks and benefits of each. As a direct result, more public dollars have been allocated for research into some of these methods.
Individuals and non-governmental agencies are active in attempts to expose quackery. According to Norcross et al (2006) several authors have attempted to identify quack psychotherapies; (e.g., Carroll, 2003; Della Sala, 1999; Eisner, 2000; Lilienfeld, Lynn, & Rohr 2003; Singer and Lalich 1996). The evidence based practice (EBP) movement in mental health emphasizes the consensus in psychology that psychological practice should rely on empirical research. There are also "anti-quackery" web sites, such as Quackwatch, which may help consumers evaluate particular claims.

Notable historical persons accused of quackery

  • Thomas Allinson (1858-1918), founder of naturopathy. Amongst other things, he believed that drinking tea and smoking was bad for health while a diet of wholemeal bread and vegetarianism plus regular exercise, swimming and fresh air was good. His views and publication of them led to him being labeled a quack and being struck off by the General Medical Council for infamous conduct in a professional respect.
  • Samuel Hahnemann (1755–1843), founder of homeopathy. Hahnemann believed that all diseases were caused by "miasms", which he defined as irregularities in the patient's vital force. He also said that illnesses could be treated by substances that in a healthy person produced similar symptoms to the illness, in extremely low concentrations, with the therapeutic effect increasing with dilution and repeated shaking.

Regulatory organizations

Anti-quackery organizations


  • Carroll, 2003. The Skeptics Dictionary. New York: Wiley.
  • Della Sala, 1999. Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions about the Mind and Brain. New York; Wiley
  • Eisner, 2000. The Death of Psychotherapy; From Freud to Alien Abductions. Westport; CT; Praegner.
  • Lilienfeld, SO., Lynn, SJ., Lohr, JM. 2003; Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology. New York. Guildford
  • Norcross, JC, Garofalo.A, Koocher.G. (2006) Discredited Psychological Treatments and Tests; A Delphi Poll. Professional Psychology; Research and Practice. vol37. No 5. 515-522
  • Radam, W. (1890) Microbes and the microbe killer. Privately published. New York. 369pp.
quack in Danish: Kvaksalver
quack in German: Quacksalber
quack in Dutch: Kwakzalverij
quack in Japanese: 偽医療
quack in Norwegian: Kvakksalver
quack in Polish: Znachor
quack in Portuguese: Charlatanismo
quack in Swedish: Kvacksalvare

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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