Take My Word!

Spouting Lies, Clamming Up on Truth

August 12, 1987|THOMAS H. MIDDLETON

Clandestine has been hurled into the atmosphere hundreds of times a day lately and is now, I should think, a confirmed part of the vocabulary of millions of Americans, including many 4-year-olds who, turning the TV on to get "Sesame Street," instead got the blockbuster Iran- contra hearings.

You don't have to be a Latin scholar to recognize clandestine as a descendant of the Latin clandestinus . Even never having heard of clandestinus, you could have guessed. Clandestinus was built originally from clam and destinatus--clam meaning, approximately, secret or private, and destinatus meaning secure or fixed. (If you've ever dug a muscular cherrystone out of his waterfront digs and tried to get him to open up to you, you now know why he's called a clam: He's using all his brawn to maintain his privacy. And clam up should take on a richer meaning: Secure that secret! Incidentally, clam and clamp are first cousins.)

From thoughts of clandestine, it's just a brief synaptic leap to thoughts of other less-than-candid notions. Charlatan and mountebank come effortlessly to mind. Mountebank comes from the Italian monta in banco-- climb up on a bench (banco means both bank and bench), so a mountebank originally was the kind of man who stood on a bench to gather a crowd about him and hawk a patent remedy.

A charlatan is essentially the same as a mountebank. The derivation is also Italian, but by way of French. Ciarlare (pronounced "char-la-re") is Italian for "to talk a lot," and ciarlataneria (in French, charlatanerie) means humbug, quackery.

The mountebanks and charlatans constitute the offensive platoon, as it were, of this nefarious team, while clandestine plays defense. That is, the clandestine squad clams up on the truth as the charlatans peddle quackery to the gullible. If you've been paying attention, you might have noticed that we've had a few players under contract to the government lately who can operate on both offense and defense.

Permit me an agreeable digression: The term mountebank always brings to my mind a guy I knew in the Army during the war, Stan Freedman, who made a lasting impression doing a sort of "mountebank number."

Stan's ambition was to be a Borscht Belt comic and to progress from there to Broadway, radio, and maybe even Hollywood. He was loaded with chutzpah, and, at age 18, I'd never known anyone to compare with him. At the time I hadn't even heard of chutzpah, come to think of it (though I knew about mountebanks).

We were in a revue together at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Miss., and we became good enough friends to have kept in touch for a while after the war. In the revue, he did a routine wherein he mounted a bench and peddled an elixir supposed to restore lost virility. I later learned that his was a comedy routine with a substantial history, but we, his fellow GIs, were fairly naive kids who had enlisted in the AAF imbued with the pervasive wartime patriotism, and to us it was new and hilarious.

With suggestive eye-rolling and hand-claps as punctuation, Stan cried, "(Clap!) Step right up, gen'lemen (clap!) Step right up!" Then, with what would undoubtedly strike us today as stale double entendres and rather juvenile naughtiness, he'd give Rejuven-O (the name, as I recall, was raunchier than that) a rollicking pitch.

My favorite part was the bonus: "Wit' each an' ev'ry bottle (clap!), I'm unna give ya absolutely free a genu-wine lit'ograph in full culla (clap!) a da cat'edral a Note-a-Dame in Paris, France, sootable fa framin' (clap!). Now suppose (clap!)--jus' suppose (clap!)--you awready got a framed pickcha in full culla of Note-a-Dame! (Clap!) Innat case, you take dis pickcha (clap!), you rub a little vinegar on it, hold it up ta da light, an' (clap!) you gonna see sumpm you awways wanneda see all yaw life! (clap!)"

A few years later, as television started enriching the world, a comic named Sid Stone did a great version of the same pitch, but thoroughly bowdlerized for family consumption, as a Texaco commercial on the Milton Berle show. It was one of the classics of early television.

These days, mountebank and charlatan are far more likely to remind me of politicians and political appointees than of Stan and Sid, but Stan and Sid were funnier. And a lot less hazardous to our health.

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