Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Melanie found this while reading Charlotte Brontë: “Old ladies were always offering her their advice, recommending this or that nostrum.” She wrote to ask about nostrum.

Nostrum, in the sense above, refers to a medicine that is of dubious effectiveness. Its inventor usually makes extravagant claims and refuses to reveal the secret ingredients. In other words, it is quack medicine. (Quack is an abbreviation for quacksalver, an ointment made from kitchen scraps.)

Nostrum comes from a Latin adjective meaning our; it is a proprietary word. The sequence for the singular masculine/feminine/neuter forms is noster/nostra/nostrum. The full phrase would probably have been remedium nostrum (our remedy). A case of the Royal We.

In extended use, a nostrum is any questionable scheme promoted to bring about social or political reform.

Research for this article brought up one surprise. In spite of centuries’ old negative connotations, a pharmaceutical company located in New Brunswick, New Jersey, calls itself Nostrum Pharmaceuticals.

SIDEBAR: Nostrum – electronic music

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