Q: My nephew claims that there is a word, "spizzerinctum," that means something like "zest for life." I looked in several dictionaries and did not find this word. It sounds to me like something he made up and I wonder if he is pulling my leg. — B.P., Deerfield, Ill. A: Over the years we've answered a number of queries like yours about "spizzerinctum" (a word that has had many spelling variants). Here's one from a letter written in 1917: "I have just had a discussion about some such word as 'spizzarinctum.' Last winter I heard a speaker use the word and say that it then was the newest word in the English vocabulary and meant 'vim and vigor.' My friends maintain that there is no such word. Could you kindly advise me?" "Spizzerinctum" is one of those words that people love to discover. It is indeed a real word — real enough to be entered in our unabridged Webster's Third New International Dictionary, where it is defined as "the will to succeed; vim, energy, ambition." Spelled "spizarinctum," this peculiar word was used in the mid-1800s for "specie," that is, for money in the form of coins. In fact, the word "spizarinctum" is thought to be simply a "fanciful coinage" from "specie." It has been further theorized that the word derives in whole from Latin "specie rectum," literally, "the right kind" — but that etymology appears to be a misguided attempt to make something more of good old American slang than is warranted. Here's the word used with a slightly different spelling in 1869, by someone writing about "greenbacks," or paper money: "They (greenbacks) had gotten no further west than Marshall (Texas), and everywhere west of that, when a man named a price, he meant 'spizerinctums.'" A 1913 streetcar sign in Washington, D.C., announcing the publication of a new dictionary featured "spizzerinktum"; "See if you can find the word in any other dictionary," the sign boasted. As "pizzeringtum" the word was noted circa 1922 as meaning "the quintessence of pep." "Spizerinkum" was defined in a 1944 book of U.S. Marine slang as "intestinal fortitude." Over the years the word has had some other meanings, most notably "tawdry adornment or ornamentation, as on a building; gimcrackery," a definition that may have been based solely on its use in the 1930s by a senator who described an old building in Washington, D.C., as "covered with gimcrackers and spizerinktoms." Another senator, when asked, "Did you see any spizerinktoms?" supposedly replied, "I didn't know where to look." Q: Where did we get the word "charlatan" to refer to someone who pretends to be knowledgeable about certain things? I am wondering if it relates to the name "Charles." — P.B., San Antonio, Texas A: Originally, the word "charlatan" referred to a quack, or a person who sold phony remedies to people. Despite the resemblance in spelling, it has nothing to do with the name "Charles." During the Middle Ages, as at other times, it was common for hucksters of a certain kind to defraud people by claiming medical skills they did not actually have. As part of their con games, these fraudsters often roamed throughout the Italian countryside, selling phony medicines that had no real curative effects. It was believed that many of these salesmen came from a village called Cerreto in Italy. The Italian word "cerretano," meaning "inhabitant of Cerreto," soon became a derogatory term for a quack physician. In addition, these frauds used a practiced patter in sales pitches that were similar to the rapid-fire calls of a carnival barker. The Italian word for "to chatter" is "ciarlare," and because so many people associated the chattering with the "cerretano," the spelling of the word eventually evolved to "ciarlatano." The French later borrowed this word as "charlatan," and this was how the word was spelled when it came into English in the early 17th century. (This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster's Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, MA 01102.)

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