snake oil

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(This etymology is missing or incomplete. Please add to it, or discuss it at the Etymology scriptorium. Particularly: “Some sources derive it from Seneca oil rather than from snake.”)


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snake oil (uncountable)

  1. (idiomatic) A fraudulent, ineffective potion or nostrum; panacea.
  2. A traditional Chinese medicine used to treat joint pain.
  3. A type of 19th-century patent medicine sold in the United States that claimed to contain snake fat, supposedly a Native American remedy for various ailments.
  4. (idiomatic) Any product with exaggerated marketing but questionable or unverifiable quality.
    • 2022 January 12, Nigel Harris, “Comment: Unhappy start to 2022”, in RAIL, number 948, page 3:
      As for the IRP, Secretary of State Grant Shapps continues to peddle snake oil, smoke and mirrors. His reaction to near-universal IRP condemnation from politicians, local and national media, and all but a few rail specialists was to dismiss the lot of us (in the condescending and patronising tone we have now come to expect) as "critics and naysayers".



snake oil (third-person singular simple present snake oils, present participle snake oiling, simple past and past participle snake oiled)

  1. (slang) To dupe or con.
    • 1995, Nancy Owen Nelson, editor, Private Voices, Public Lives:
      And this is particularly so for many of our women students who have been hustled and snake-oiled to deny the validity of their intellects.
    • 2013, Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge, Vintage, published 2014, page 23:
      Before she had a chance to deal with her hangover, he was on the phone snake-oiling her into the first of what would be many ill-fated fraud cases.