Friday, December 07, 2007

Con Men

Yesterday afternoon, a student told me a story about her work at a popular casual clothing retailer. She said that there is a man who is well known at all her employer's branches for trying to pull a trick on them to cheat them out of money. The man buys an item of clothing, takes it home, damages it slightly (e.g., a small tear), and then returns to the shop he bought it from to lodge a complaint. When he complains, he insists on getting his money back and keeping the damaged garment.

My student said that this man keeps using different names when he pulls this stunt at various stores, but his face is well-known by now. While this trick initially worked due to the Japanese desire to please the customer and their squeamishness with being confronted in anger, it is no longer effective since it has become clear that he is a petty con man.

I used my student's working experience as an opportunity to teach her the term "con man" and she asked me why such scammers were named so. I explained the origin of the term to her, but afterwards I got to thinking about how teaching English requires you to have some understanding of the origin of words and terms in your own language that not all people possess. I wondered how many people understand the origin of "con man" who are not British. (I'm pretty sure that most British folks know it because I've heard it used in its full form (confidence trickster/man) in British television shows.

The sad thing is that a lot of teachers who don't know the answer to a question regarding grammar or the origin of a word will simply say, 'that's just the way it is,' rather than admit they're not sure why it is that way. Generally speaking, that's probably not such a big deal, but being able to explain things properly does help the student learn more effectively and remember the meaning of the words better. If I tell a student the "con" in "con man" comes from "confidence" because the scammer has to gain the confidence of his mark, she's far more likely to recall the meaning when she hears the words on a T.V. show or in a movie than if I just tell her, "that's just the way it is."


Mari said...

I know what you mean, Shari. I always try to answer students' questions as best as I can. If I'm not able to, I promise to have the answer by the next class. It helps to read a lot and sort of be aware about things.

Kanagawa G said...

I agree, knowing the origin of words helps with overall comprehension of the language. The same can be said for Japanese.

Even simple things like why "Konnichiwa" means "hello" are often quite enlightening.

On another note, a lot of con men target the elderly. I used to spend the afternoon in the company of a charming old widower sipping tea and talking about various topics in Japanese. One day a slick young man came to the door and tried to force her into buying an extremely overpriced futon set. She finally sent the man on his way, but later told me that it was the knowledge that I was in the house in case any trouble happened that gave her the courage to do so. Very sad, indeed.

Shari said...

Mari: I do the same thing (promising to answer later)!

KanagawaG: The situation you mention sounds really sad because the widower may have allowed himself to be taken advantage of if you hadn't been there! Of course, the elderly are often victims in all countries.

Thanks to both of you for taking the time to comment. :-)

tornados28 said...

There are so many words or terms used in English that have some origin or meaning that most people don't know.

My wife who is Japanese sometimes asks me about a word and sometimes I have to say, "I don't know where that term came from", such as "litter-bug". Why litter-bug? Why not litter-pig or litter-slug?

Helen said...

I just wanted to comment that there is an interesting website that helps discover the origin of words. It's called The Word Detective and the URL is It's not very useful for students because the author tends to be a bit long winded, but it helps give us a good idea, that we can perhaps explain.

There's also a book that I've been working on for the last couple of years about word origins...Port Out, Starboard Home by Michael Quinion. Has a lot of fascinating information in it.

I'm like you though, if I don't know the actual origin of a word, I tell the student I don't and will try to find it out for them.