Snake Oil

healing oil

The phrase snake oil is as a derogatory term used to describe quackery, the promotion of fraudulent or unproven medical practices. The expression is also applied metaphorically to any product with questionable and/or unverifiable quality or benefit. By extension, the term ‘snake oil salesman’ may be applied to someone who sells fraudulent goods, or who is a fraud himself.

The phrase originates with a topical preparation made from the Chinese Water Snake. Chinese laborers on railroad gangs involved in building the First Transcontinental Railroad first gave snake oil to Europeans with joint pain. When rubbed on the skin at the painful site, snake oil was claimed to bring relief. This claim was ridiculed by rival medicine salesmen, and in time, snake oil became a generic name for many compounds marketed as panaceas or miraculous remedies whose ingredients were usually secret, unidentified, or mis-characterized and mostly inert or ineffective.

Patent medicines originated in England, where a patent was granted to Richard Stoughton’s Elixir in 1712. Since there was no federal regulation in the USA concerning safety and effectiveness of drugs until the 1906 Food and Drugs Act and various medicine salesmen or manufacturers seldom had enough skills in chemistry to analyze the contents of snake oil, it became the archetype of hoax. The snake oil peddler became a stock character in Western movies: a travelling ‘doctor’ with dubious credentials, selling fake medicines with boisterous marketing hype, often supported by pseudo-scientific evidence. To increase sales, an accomplice in the crowd (a shill) would often attest to the value of the product in an effort to provoke buying enthusiasm. The ‘doctor’ would leave town before his customers realized they had been cheated. This practice is also called ‘grifting’ and its practitioners are called ‘grifters.’

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