‘The general quack of conversation’: a buoyant, bogus, underappreciated word
Some words get all the attention. Presidential coinages such as covfefe and misunderestimate become fodder for an endless succession of jokes. Words for annoying behaviors such as mansplaining and humblebragging become talking points in the eternal quest to annihilate our annoyances. Beautiful words get lots of love (hello, serendipity) and corporate buzzwords get heaps of hate (ugh, downsizing).
But we often ignore exclamations, maybe because ugh and ooh and eh don’t seem like ‘real’ words, as if some words were realer than others, whatever that could possibly mean. Animal interjections get even less respect: we barely treat chirp and moo as words at all, paralleling our general dismissal of the animal kingdom. Newsflash: animal kingdom was coined by animals too.
In honor of these misunderestimated words – and 1976 US Presidential candidate Howard the Duck – here’s a closer look at quack. This guttural, punchy five-letter word is one of the most successful animalistic interjections, with a lengthy history involving swimming birds and scamming sawbones.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s etymological notes make the obvious observation that this word imitates nature and the less-obvious note that several languages are in harmony on the imitation. Dutch kwak, German quack, Swedish kvack, Danish kvak, and Old Icelandic kvak are all similar enough, though some of the above have been used to represent the sounds of non-duck birds and even our unfeathered friend the frog. I suppose croak is pretty close to quack.
Quack, in this sense, started turning up in English in the mid-1500s. The OED’s first recorded use is from English poet Nicholas Breton, who wrote the following lines in 1577: ‘The Geese and Ganders hist, the Duckes cride quack at mee.’ Early uses seem to be variations of this nursery rhyme-y sort. Another English poet, John Lyly, wrote something similar in 1594: ‘The goose does hisse, the duck cries quack.’
Before quack, there was queck, which the OED traces back to the 1300s. Queck lost the lexical Darwinian contest to quack, but it still turns up from time to time. A 1953 issue of The American Midland Naturalist attributes the word to a type of grouse: ‘The male [ptarmigan] protested with his gutteral cackle: quek, quek, quek, quekrrrrrrrrrrr!’ FYI, quekrrrrrrrrrrr is the sound I make every time I read the news.
Quack is so associated with ducks that it means more than how they sound. Just as a dog can be called a bow-wow, a duck has been known by a rather undignified name since the late 1800s. In St. George Jackson Mivart’s 1889 book On Truth: A Systematic Inquiry, not all the truths require a graduate degree to understand: ‘“Quack-quack” and “gee-gee” are just as good abstract universal terms as “duck” and “horse”.’ Still true today.
Sometimes quack refers to human gobbledygook, not generally in a flattering way. I don’t understand the stock market well enough to grok this sentence from 1806’s cheery tome The Miseries of Human Life by James Beresford, but it seems worth repeating: ‘Attending at the Stock-exchange on settling-day amidst the quack of Ducks, the bellowings of Bulls, and the growls of Bears.’ Similarly, in the 1903 novel The Seal of Silence, Arthur Conder wrote, ‘The voice of the footman rose high above the general quack of conversation.’ FYI, I’m stealing the phrase ‘the general quack of conversation’ and using it at every opportunity.
The sense of a quack as a medical charlatan dates from the 1600s. The first known use is the 17th century equivalent of a bad Yelp review, as poet Francis Quarles wrote in 1638’s Hieroglyphikes of the Life of Man: ‘Quack, leave thy trade; Thy Dealings are not right, Thou tak’st our weighty gold, to give us light.’
Two rare adjectives arising from this sense are recorded by the OED: quack-adoring and quack-ridden. There’s also an obsolete adjective that deserves a revival. As Harriet Martineau wrote in her autobiography in 1876: ‘Such exhortations are too low for even the wavering mood and quacked morality of a time of theological suspense and uncertainty.’ I reckon an ethicist might suggest all morality is quacked.
So is calling a phony doctor a quack a commentary on the innocent duck, who surely never botched a surgery nor swindled a leper? Nope. This sense of quack is a shortened form of quacksalver, which comes from Dutch and means someone who applies home remedies. Quacksalver has been found in English since the late 1500s, and it spawned the amusing variations quacksalverism and quacksalvery. These days, you’d probably just say quackery, though you could also refer to quackism and quackhood. If you want to talk about a specific quack, and brevity isn’t your thing, you can always use the word quackster, found since the early 1700s.
Whether you’re a fan of quack-quacks who swim on a lake or a critic of quacksters who pollute the internet, the work quack is a meaty, satisfying, gleeful term. I wouldn’t want to be known as a quack, quackmeister, or quackmonger, but I’m quacking happy these terms exist.