Word of the Day


© Getty Images/iStockphoto
Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter


someone who cheats people by claiming to have special knowledge or abilities

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The noun charlatan first appeared in English in the early 17th century. It comes from the Italian ‘ciarlatano’, a fraud or quack, which itself comes from the verb ‘ciarlare’, meaning to chatter or babble. The word’s first recorded use is in the play ‘Volpone’ by Ben Jonson.


A charlatan was originally a travelling salesman of fake remedies, what we might nowadays refer to as a snake oil seller. The meaning was subsequently broadened to include anyone who peddles false knowledge or expertise for their own benefit. ‘Peddle’ is one of the most frequent verbs to have charlatan as its subject; others are ‘prey on’, ‘dupe’, ‘pretend’, ‘exploit’ and ‘deceive’. You get the picture. Charlatans often keep company linguistically with ‘quacks’, ‘swindlers’, ‘crooks’, ‘hucksters’ and ‘opportunists’; also, interestingly, with ‘fools’ and ‘cranks’, suggesting that in some cases at least the charlatans are fooling themselves almost as much as they fool other people. Another prominent collocate is demagogue, highlighting the fact that charlatans are nowadays to be found as often in the political sphere as they used to be in the fairground.


“A charlatan in religion is sure to like other sorts of charlatans.”
(George Eliot, Middlemarch)

“No theory in the history of science has been more misused and abused by cranks and charlatans—and misunderstood by people struggling in good faith with difficult ideas—than quantum mechanics.”
(Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist)

Related words

cheat, fraud, conman, fake

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

About the author

Liz Potter

Liz Potter

Leave a Comment