Nostrums...They Aren't What They Seem

Last Editorial Review: 10/28/2002

A nostrum is a worthless, quack remedy.

The word "nostrum" is derived from Latin where for millenia it has served as the neuter form of the adjective "noster" meaning "our" or "our own." What was "our own"? Any medicine of secret concoction was said to be "our own" formulation and so was a "nostrum."

The patent medicines of 19th-century America were nostrums. Just as were the many concoctions promoted in 17th-century England as cures for the plague. The word "nostrum" was in fact introduced into English in this context. The medicine men flocked to London "Setting to sale their witlesse Nostrums," recorded F. Herring in 1602.

About a woman with breast cancer and her sister at high risk for the disease Jerome Groopman writes in The New Yorker (Feb. 5, 1998) that "...well-meaning friends had bombarded them both with suggestions: eat strictly organic, take megavitamins, avoid all alcohol and fats, try special herbal tonics and Eastern healing techniques," adding: "Many of these nostrums were harmless, and some, for all anyone knew, might even be helpful, but they remained unproved and could not be relied on...."

A nostrum can also be a special solution for solving some problem or a pet scheme for political or social change. Thus, the 29th (and arguably worst) president of the United States, Warren G. Harding, in one of his few quotable utterances, proclaimed in 1920 that "America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration."

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