Monday, November 14, 2011


Today, a new category of day: balmy-November.

It's seventy-five degrees in Athens and the wind seems to be blowing in off of some sea. Has West Virginia become an ocean? Are the mountaineer-sailors shouting “Land Ho” as they float westward past The Omelette Shoppe on Old Sea Route 50 in Parkersburg?

I'm telling you for serious now, for serious, that I can almost smell a body of saltwater and its fishy, tasty death. Columbus, I think, is overwhelmed with oysters.

So, of course, I'm November-sweaty, a new category of sweaty. And thinking, involuntarily, of the word “oleaginous.”

I'm not even sure I know what “oleaginous” means, but its five syllables seem to be actively oozing out of my brain and onto my now-enwettened forehead. (Blast you, Kentucky-Sea air! How are you both oceanic and thick?)

Oily, it means. “Oleaginous” does. From Latin, as most good words are. From French, too, naturally. It's a gross sounding word that both literally and figuratively means slick.

It's hard not to be oleaginous while pronouncing “oleaginous.” I feel like kind of a slimeball just writing it. Same feeling I get when I use the word “epitome,” or “obsequious” (which my really smart boss would be glad to know is actually synonymous with “oleaginous”).

And it's even hard to pronounce “oleaginous” without also pronouncing some spittle with it.

Old Timey Snake Oil Salesmen bring the two definitions of the word together, but I'm not really sure what Old Timey Snake Oil Salesmen were either, truthfully. Snake Oil Salesmen had some physical oil, I guess, and were thought to be slick in their selling of it—flim-flam artists, grifters, gafflers, hustle junkies.

When I was sitting a few minutes ago, overcome by oleagineity and mysterious toe pain, my mind—swell con-man itself—drifted to Snake Oil. What was it? Could it soothe my Itchy Toe? And who was its purveyor, that archetypal liar?

Also, shouldn't the Snake Oil Salesman have come up with a better name for his product? I think if I were attempting to peddle fake medicine to frontiersfolk, I might've called it something much more soothing than snake oil, even if it actually was the oil of a snake. And it was. At least in China, originally. Because the Chinese Water Snake's oils are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Snake fat was also big in ancient Egyptian medicine, maybe Greek too, and it was mixed with “the fats of lion, hippopotamus, crocodile, tomcat, and Nubian ibex into a homogeneous mass believed to cause bald men to grow hair.” So, if snake guts really put hair on a bald King Tut, then I can see why its sellers wouldn't have been ashamed to call themselves what they were. Snake Oil Salesman has a better ring than Nubian Ibex Oil Salesman, after all.

But in America, “Snake Oil” was often made of beef fat.

So, my question still remains. You decide to become a grifter. You get yourself a product. And in a fit of ad-wizardry, you name it Snake Oil? Not Stallion Salve, or Gizmo Juice, or God's Tears, or any other combination of nonsense words that would sound perfectly reassuring to your average Deadwood resident. Not Brahm's Balm or Willard's Wonder Water. Nope, just Snake Oil.

One word, snake, that since Eden itself has meant treachery + a second word, oil, that, especially in the heyday of quack medicine in the early 20th Century, would have brought to mind risky speculation. Sign me up for ten bottles! This toe is getting worse!

But Snake Oil Salesmen, at least some of them, seemed to have believed in their own product and would not have appreciated the derogatory term we now use.

“As I was thought a great deal of by the medicine man,” recalled S.O.S. Clark Stanley in an 1897 book, “he gave me the secret of making the Snake Oil Medicine, which is now named Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment.” Back then, Clark Stanley's medicine was used for “Rheumatism, Neuralgia, Sciatica, Lame Back, Contracted Muscles, Sprains, Swellings, Frost Bites, Chilblains, Bruises, Sore Throat, Bites of Animals, Insects and Reptiles.” (No word on whether it cured Viper's Dance or Scrivener's Palsy or Itchy Toe or Siriasis, but my toe still hurts and it's still 75 degrees in Athens, in case you were wondering).

Back to Stanley. Having learned from the Indians, he set up snake-shop in Beverly, Mass, toured the country with a snake-killing show, and eventually added red pepper flakes and turpentine to his concoction. Somewhere along the line, even though he'd trusted in those Indian wise men and their original blend, his stuff got less snake and more fake.

For peddling snake oil that ultimately didn't have any snake oil in it, he was fined $20 (about $425.70 in today's dollars, or about 851 bottles in today's Stanley's Snake Oil Liniments. But if a sucker is born every minute, he would have needed only 14 hours to make his money back, so that's good for him).

A sucker is born every minute. Someone is selling a “new” Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment sign on Ebay; that does not seem like a safe buy, and yet I'm intrigued.

I don't know the last time I was really fooled badly, so I might go for it. I used to have a reputation for gullibility in middle school, I know, but I don't recall being out-and-out scammed since then, to any large degree at least. I'm pretty often worried, though, that someone's puttin' one over on me (a phrase which doesn't have an immediately discernible origin, if the internet is to be believed). And even now, trying to remember the last big prank I endured, I'm pretty sure that since I can't tell who the sucker at the table is, it must be me.

So I ask myself on most days, How am I being duped? By the culture, by commercials? What are my blind spots? What snake oil have I bought without even realizing the cost?

And usually my mind wanders to those places when I'm reading something about the way Ancient or British folk drank the kool-aid of their own ridiculous ideologies, accepting some pre-ordained oppression or another. I can't be much different.

But the other day, the mind-wandering and the reading came together nicely. I was looking into some required Plato and daydreaming about how I might be getting screwed by the world; and then Socrates said that he knows he's the wisest man around only because he's the only one who's realized he doesn't know anything.

Maybe I've been fooled into believing I can think my way out of all of this. That's how they've gotten me. That's my blindspot (some snake oils are said to cure dry eyes, but not blindness).

Turns out, Socrates used to call his rivals, The Sophists, Snake Oil Salesmen of The Soul. That's a sophisticated line (wait, strike that). Anyway, there's some argument about whether those Sophists knew they were selling spiritual sputum to their audience or whether they, too, bought into their own brand of rhetoric, of oleagiosity. They thought they could talk their way out of anything, think their way around logic. But were they right? Maybe.

And if you believe that, I've got some ocean-front property in Appalachia to sell you.

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