Dear Editor: Why is a fraud, especially a medical impostor, called a charlatan?
There was a wide gap in medieval Italy between the handful of learned physicians who had studied medicine at the great schools of Salerno or Bologna and the average peasant who knew only simple folk remedies. This gap was filled by a large group of pretenders to medical skills, who would perform surgery on demand and traveled from one market town to another, advertising cures of dubious efficacy. For reasons now obscure, the region of Umbria in central Italy was particularly noted as the home of itinerant medicine-peddlers, and the Italian word cerretano, which literally meant "an inhabitant of Cerreto," a town in eastern Umbria, became an epithet for a quack physician. Cerretano was blended with the verb ciarlare, "to chatter," alluding to the patter of the medicine seller, to form ciarlatano, in use by the end of the 15th century. Ciarlatano was borrowed into French as charlatan and hence into English, where it was in use by the early 17th century.