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A valueless or fraudulent cure, remedy, or solution. Often used in the phrase "snake oil salesman," one who sells or promotes such a product. My mom keeps giving me all of these hippie-dippie homeopathic pills to help my migraines, but I think they’re just snake oil, honestly.
Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. © 2015 Farlex, Inc, all rights reserved.
see under banana oil.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Copyright © 2003, 1997 by The Christine Ammer 1992 Trust. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Snake oil is something which is sold or presented as a cure or a solution to a problem but which, in fact, has no use or value. Do vitamins really help the skin or are cosmetic companies simply promoting the latest in snake oil? Note: You can also describe someone as a snake-oil salesman, meaning that they try to sell you or persuade you to believe in snake oil. Smooth-talking snake-oil salesmen use the telephone to take money from the foolish and the greedy and then vanish. Note: In the United States, snake oil was a substance typically made from the plant snakeroot. Dishonest salesmen tried to persuade people to buy it, claiming that it was a medicine which would cure their illnesses.
Collins COBUILD Idioms Dictionary, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2012
Quack medicine, a useless remedy. This term comes from nineteenth-century traveling medicine shows that touted cure-all elixirs made from Chinese snakes. Eugene O’Neill used it in this sense in his play The Iceman Cometh (1946): “I’ll bet he’s standing on a street corner in hell right now, making suckers of the damned, telling them there’s nothing like snake oil for a bad burn.” Later the term was extended to mean a worthless remedy for any kind of problem, as in “Advertisers who try to lubricate the wheels of our economy with snake oil” (Washington Post, May 10, 1961).
The Dictionary of Clichés by Christine Ammer Copyright © 2013 by Christine Ammer