May 12, 2015

Those terrible mountebanks.

I questioned whether I'd ever seen the word "mountebank" in the newspaper, so I searched the NYT archive — all the way back to 1852 — and got 782 hits, beginning with "Really, this Louis NAPOLEON is a very provoking fellow" ("the appearance of the mountebank in the character of a king").

Quite a few of the hits were repetitions of H.L. Mencken's 1926 description of William Jennings Bryan: "a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity . . . deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, . . . all beauty, all fine and noble things. . . . Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not."

One often encounters "mountebank" in a string of contradictions about a person, for example, Theodore Roosevelt: "He transformed the 20th century; no, he overextended the 19th. He was a progressive trust buster; no, an imperialist demagogue. He was a defender of liberty; no, a power-hungry mountebank — a pioneer environmentalist, a bloodthirsty hunter; a farseeing visionary, an energetic clerk."

I see that future President Woodrow Wilson — upon hearing of the death of President McKinley in 1901 — said: "What will happen to the country with that mountebank as President?"
Later, in 1915, the word was turned upon him: "... President Wilson is a desperate mountebank intent on bolstering up his tottering Administration by an appeal to race prejudice and musical hall patriotism...."

"Mountebank" comes up a lot describing actors. We see "the cheerfully nervous mountebank Muffin T. Ragamuffin" (played by Dom DeLuise).  And: "Although 'Waiting for Godot' is an uneventful, maundering, loquacious drama, [Bert] Lahr... has a thousand ways to move and a hundred ways to grimace... [and] long experience as a bawling mountebank...."

And therefore: "In France Hitler is represented as a mountebank and a stage comedian..." (in "What Drives the Giant Hitler Machine" (1938)).

The word comes up often in news of Hitler, for example in January 1933: "Progress of Germany's 'great political adventure' is being watched here [in Britain] in an atmosphere of doubt as to whether history will fix the new Chancellor as a mountebank or hero." That was the potential range? Maybe a hero, but maybe a mountebank!

Meanwhile, FDR has avoided "anything like the tricks of a political mountebank," as we see in this piece on the eve of the the 1932 election, which is good to see as a clipping, next to news of another election:

Also not a mountebank was Grover Cleveland, according to one 1891 assessment of the ex-President, at the point when Democrats were considering making him their candidate again: "The strength and solidity of his character make him the easy leader of the common people of the country. He is no mountebank or juggler. He never poses. He is not playing upon the vanities or ambitions of any part of his countrymen."

This one — from February 1936 — works best as a picture:

The 18th century rears its head-cuttingly ugly head, even as the man of the 20th century is dragging a woman by the hair.

Elsewhere in the 20th century, Radovan Karadzic was "a prosaic nobody. A mediocre psychiatrist, a minor poet and a petty embezzler before the war, at the time of his arrest he was a grotesque mountebank." And Henry Ford (when, in 1923, he withdrew as a presidential candidate and threw his support to Calvin Coolidge) "has been regarded as a political mountebank."

And Maureen Dowd used the word on Al Sharpton:
It was a bad sign for the Democrats that the most appealing and commanding figure was Al Sharpton. You know you're in trouble when Mr. Sharpton is the class of the field. He has had his moments as racial divider, mountebank and Louis Farrakhan ally. But at least the minister... is not smaller-than-life or humorless.
It was a "bad sign for the Democrats" that Sharpton was the best they had. The year was 1997 and — according to Dowd — the Democratic Party was "full of pipsqueaks, opportunists, complainers and namby-pambys who are barely able to project an image."

What do you want — your  pipsqueaks and namby-pambys or a good old-fashioned mountebank?

ADDED: The word "mountebank" shows its literal meaning, monta in banco, that is, to mount on a bench, or get up on a platform, and the oldest meaning — I'm looking at the (unlinkable) OED — is "An itinerant charlatan who sold supposed medicines and remedies, freq. using various entertainments to attract a crowd of potential customers." That led to the figurative use: "A charlatan, a person who falsely claims knowledge of or skill in some matter, esp. for personal gain; a person who pretends to be something he or she is not, in order to gain prestige, fame, etc." Americans are more likely to say "snake-oil salesman," and everyone immediately understands that, unlike "mountebank." And unlike "mountebank," "snake-oil salesman" doesn't make you sound old-time-y — W.C. Fieldsish — even though it calls up the image of an old-time folk character:


cubanbob said...

Why beat around with a three dollar word when fraudster or charlatan is just as accurate?

Big Mike said...

What do you want — your pipsqueaks and namby-pambys or a good old-fashioned mountebank?

The Democrats consist exclusively of all three, often in the same person.

traditionalguy said...

A traveling medicine salesman was called a mountebank because he "mounted a bench" to speak to a ginned up crowd of rubes selling them hope in a bottle, pre-FDA.

Hence a politician on the campaign trail.

Huckabee has been caught doing both recently.

mccullough said...

Scoundrel, scalawag, rapscallion, varlet, mountebank, knave, and cad. Tough to use these terms without displaying hipster irony

Publius said...

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.

Letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp (30 July 1816), denouncing the doctrine of the Trinity

Scott said...

I always thought a mountebank was where Canadian police officers deposited their paychecks.

madAsHell said...

Here's the etymology from

1570-80; (< Middle French) < Italian montimbanco one who climbs on a bench, equivalent to mont (are) to climb (see mount1) + -im-, variant of in on + banco bench (see bank2)

I was also surprised to see the correct pronunciation uses 3 syllables. moun-te-bank.

Rusty said...

"Those terrible mountebanks."

Democrats. right?

etienne said... almost pathological hatred of all learning...

I remember this as a debating tactic, that always got our team extra points.

What it means, is that you have no rebuttal, but by using it against the other team, it makes the judges laugh.

We actually had a hand signal for this, we would point our index finger at our head, as if to inflict a pistol wound to the temporal lobe.

Chris N said...

I've wandered that rogue's gallery some folks call 'D.C.'

A greater collection of scoundrels, reprobates, bespectacled mountebanks and miscreants I've never seen.

etienne said...

madAsHell said...Here's the etymology from

I don't think there's any connection to middle french. All the charlatan and mountebank stuff comes from Italian.

I mean, in France, if an Italian is moving his lips, you know right away he's lying...

Anonymous said...

It's not so much the mountebanks themselves as the ne'er-do-wells, scrubs, and coxcombs they hang out with.

tim in vermont said...

So if a mountebank goes bankrupt, does that mean that the bench he climbed onto has been broken?

Chris N said...

Coxcombs I can handle, but not the infamous 'K Street Hooligan' O'Houlihan.

His exploits are legislative.

lemondog said...

Scoundrel, scalawag, rapscallion, varlet, mountebank, knave, and cad.

All masculine denunciations.

Villainess? Medusa? Black widow? Maybe Disney's Cruella?

Dearth of female equivalents. Need modernized comparables,

Bill Harshaw said...

I was sure that Mark Twain used "mountebank" in Huckleberry Finn,with reference to the Duke and the Dauphin, but not so. Apparently academics love to characterize them as mountebanks.

But it turns out Twain did use "mountebank" in Pudd'nhead Wilson: "The closing speech of the campaign was made by Judge Driscoll, and he made it against both of the foreigners. It was disastrously effective. He poured out rivers of ridicule upon them, and forced the big mass meeting to laugh and applaud. He scoffed at them as adventurers, mountebanks, sideshow riffraff, dime museum freaks; he assailed their showy titles with measureless derision; he said they were back-alley barbers disguised as nobilities, peanut peddlers masquerading as gentlemen, organ-grinders bereft of their brother monkey."

Skeptical Voter said...

Mountebanks? We've got a threefer in the White House. Barack, Slow Joe and Mooch. Why go back so far to review the word?

Mitch H. said...

#$%!ing Mencken, I recognize that nasty bit of character assassination, it was from the coverage of the Scopes trial. A social-climbing Baltimore guttersnipe who loathed the stench of trade and tobacco that wafted out of his father's factory, he liked to pretend he was a long-lost cousin of Henry Adams, but really - auto-didactic trash. An enthusiast for eugenics, authoritarianism, and an ardent admirer of Wilhelm II, he was all in all a loathsome crank with an unfortunate capacity for invective and smug wit. Sort of a degenerate Ambrose Bierce in style, but without the personality-altering head wound to justify his bile.

richard mcenroe said...

Cuban Bob: Because a language of abundant words is rich in utility, variety, ideas and nuance. If you feel a need to eliminate words from the language try to live your life speaking in accordance with a modern campus speech code.

The ultimate end of any language determined to eliminate 'three-dollar words' is tweets along the line of BUSH IS TEH SUXXOR LOL LOL LOL, and ultimately an Orwellian elimination of the ideas behind the words removed.

In one of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels, as a frigate crew laments their fate under a threat of peace, the officers in their wardroom sing a sarcastic song in which the surgeon's mate bemoans his future, "I shall travel to the county fair, and set up mountebank!"

richard mcenroe said...

lemondog -- It's the 21st century. Women are incapable of evil or character flaws and if they aren't it's sexist of you to notice, h8er!

lemondog said...


:'- <

etienne said...


Are we back to David Corn now? :-)

I wish they would stop showing steaks on the robot test...

dbp said...

Whenever I see or hear the word mountebank, I think of Lord Mountbatten. Probably because the words sound so much alike, I didn't know much about him other than a vague memory that the IRA assassinated him.

I don't know if Lord Mountbatten was a mountebank or not, given the circumstances of his death, it would be impolite to suggest it, even if true.

Bilwick said...

Mencken also used the term to describe many of the New Dealers. Again, another correct Mencken observation.

Bilwick said...

So what writers/thinkers/critics do you admire, Mitch? Just want to see where you're coming from.

Mitch H. said...

Honestly? I do admire Bierce - "my price is seventy-five million dollars, payable to the Treasurer of the United States". I have a sneaking admiration for William Jennings Bryan, at least on a personal level. Hell, I admire Eugene Debs for his integrity, and Warren Harding for letting him out of jail, whatever sins of venality or ideology otherwise tarnish their good names.

Bilwick said...

Me, I tend to admire people who value reason and liberty--you know, like Mencken.

Mitch H. said...

"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." To describe Mencken as a champion of liberty is to traffic in definitions more perverse than anything to be found in the Devil's Dictionary, which was largely neutral between tyrants and mobs, and Mencken's reason was the veritable "propensitate of prejudice".

He was often happy in his hatreds, more accurate than the stopped clock, if only because clocks, killed, sit stubbornly on a single vector, but his hatreds radiated outward from almost every compass-point.

Dr Weevil said...

I'm surprised no one's mentioned the best-known use of the "three-dollar word" 'mountebank', which includes a four-dollar word to top it:

"I bought an unction of a mountebank,
So mortal that, but dip a knife in it,
Where it draws blood no cataplasm so rare,
Collected from all simples that have virtue
Under the moon, can save the thing from death
That is but scratched withal."
(Laertes in Hamlet, IV.7)

Quaestor said...

Bert Lahr had "long experience as a brawling mountebank"? What a odd participle to apply to mountebank -- don't mountebanks usually eschew a brawl? Don't they usually slip out of town on the midnight freight long before the brawling breaks out?