Some words masquerade—hiding behind a false appearance, ready to deceive and lead us astray. I’m not talking about words that look like other words (e.g., loath and loathe) but words whose definitions themselves speak of duplicity and the counterfeit.
150 years ago, about the time that Wyatt Earp was corralling the bad guys, and Tombstone was riddled with fresh tombstones, a certain kind of salesman would make his way across the great expanse of the United States.
In small towns, he would set up shop, mounting a large bench and hawking the most wonderful remedies: mam, this green oil will make your skin glow like a baby’s; and lad, this purple snake’s oil will give you the strength of three men.
By the time it was clear that the green potion caused nothing more than indigestion, and the purple a nasty case of lockjaw, our huckster would be hundreds miles away, plying a fresh crop of dupes with his wondrous wares.
Remember how I said he would mount a large bench? Well, banco is the Italian for bench, so a mountebank and is one who figuratively mounts a bench and tries to sell us snake oil, or any product with no value effect, especially the one the mountebank touts.
Today, mountebank can refer to anyone who makes false claims in order to extract money from us.
Okay, spurious doesn’t get a nice fancy back-story like mountebank. Spurious refers to anything that is counterfeit or fake. Claims can be spurious, meaning they are not authentic (see apocryphal, below).
Do not confuse specious with spurious. Though the two words look similar, specious means something that is attractive but ultimately misleading and false. That is not to say that which is spurious is not specious. Sometimes the two overlap. However often the contexts in which they are used are different. For example, an argument can be specious and a claim spurious, but not vice-versa.
Oh yes, the years of the mountebank are long behind us. The idea that anyone would try to mulct us of our hard-earned money, hawking sham remedies right in front of our eyes: pills that imbue us with the sheen of youth; 10-hours of energy in a bottle; Brazilian berries that allow us to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
He may no longer travel in a horse drawn carriage, but the mountebank is very much alive, setting up his shop all over the Internet. And all these unproven remedies have their own word: nostrum.
Properly defined, a nostrum is any medicine or cure that does not live up to its claim. Nostrum can also apply to social remedies—that is plans, philosophies that claim to cure society of its many ills.
This word describes a surface that is appealing but covers up something negative beneath. Politicians, beneath a veneer of white-toothed smiles, aren’t always trustworthy.
Veneer also describes the small glossy coating on wood that covers the coarse wood below. Makes sense: the polish of the top often belies the coarseness below. Not too different for some politicians.
Quack remedies are often tangible; apocryphal is reserved for the intangible—stories or reports that are of dubious authenticity. And apocryphal stories are not intentionally misleading. Many untrue stories are simply bandied about, with few people every questioning the validity of their respective sources.
In religious circles, this word is a contentious one. The Apocrypha were parts of the Bible that many did not consider authentic. Did Jesus really say and do that, the debate rages. As a result, the Apocrypha have been let out of the New Testament.
The modern use of the word apocryphal does not typically pertain to a religious context. Today any story that is of dubious validity is apocryphal.
So remember: Always check your sources. Always scratch the veneer to see what lies below. And always watch out for the mountebank and his nostrums. They are masquerading all around us.