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It really confuses me, because in my native language, "artists" should be a decent occupation (on painting, singing, movie, etc.), but obviously, a man performing scam is far from being decent.

Similarly, PUA is short for "pickup artist". All this behaviors (pickup, confidence trick) are not widely socially accepted. How can they be called "artist"? Maybe I have got some misunderstanding on the word "artist"?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Dec 26 '20 at 19:16
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Quite apart from cultural differences — which may lie at the center of your question, but which, aside from their linguistic elements, are not on-topic — two distinct senses of 'artist' emerged early in the development of the word, as evidenced by the word's early uses. The disparity you observed in contemporary use of 'artist' reflects those distinct senses, although it should be remarked as preamble that contemporary uses of 'artist' with reference to people engaged in socially approved activities and socially disapproved activities are not incompatible. At its contemporary core, 'artist' refers to anyone who is highly skilled and practiced at any specialized activity or occupation.

The origin of 'artist' is summarized well by OED:

Origin: Of multiple origins. Partly a borrowing from French. Partly a borrowing from Latin. Etymons: French artiste; Latin artista.

OED attests an obsolete sense of 'artist' ("person who pursues a craft or trade; a craftsperson, an artisan") from 1563:

T. Gale Certaine Wks. Chirurg. f. 6 All Artistes and workemen haue their subiectes, and matter on whyche they doe exercise there arte. So the Mason hath stones, and bryckes, whyche accordynge to hys arte, he heweth, squareth, cutteth, & proportioneth.

For contemporary uses of the word, OED attests senses under two broad umbrellas:

III. A person skilled in one of the creative or fine arts.

IV. A person practised in artifice or some other (esp. disreputable) activity.

The senses in section III and IV reflect the dichotomy of use you observed; the activities involved in section III senses are, generally, socially approved, while activities involved in section IV senses are, generally, socially disapproved. The earliest attestation of senses in section III is 1578 (date uncertain); the earliest attestation of senses in section IV is 1648.

The later date of section IV sense attestation in OED should not be accorded much weight in our context. First, the difference is only a matter of 70 scantily attested years; second, it is apparent from indirect evidence that the use of 'artist' in senses involving socially disapproved activities was likely to have started at least as early as 1591, when Robert Greene's widely celebrated and influential A Notable Discovery of Coosnage was first printed.

In Greene's work, 'coney-catching' (spelled variously; "swindling, cheating; trickery, deception", OED) is described as an art; he considers, although he does not specifically call, the practitioners of 'coney-catching', that is, the 'coney-catchers', artists.

…I will onely speake of two such notable abuses, which the practitioners of the[n] shadow with the name of Arts, as never have been heard of in any age before. The first and chiefe, is called the Art of Cunny catching; the second the Arte of Crosbiting; two such pestilent and prejudiciall practises, as of late have been the ruine of infinite persons, …. The first is a deceit at Cardes, ….

A Notable Discovery of Coosnage, p. 9

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  • Thank you for the answer. It is kind of like a degeneracy of meanings, making the translation between languages harder and subler.
    – Hangci Du
    Dec 28 '20 at 7:37
  • You're welcome. Multiple meanings certainly make translation harder, and the result more subtle. Rather than "degeneracy", though, the parallel development of multiple meanings is often (but not always) more aptly called 'undegeneracy' or 'regeneracy'.
    – JEL
    Dec 28 '20 at 22:02
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Antecedents of 'con artist': 'confidence man' and 'con man'

The original term is "confidence man," which appears at least as early as 1849. From "What Is Talked About" in The Literary World (New York, August 18, 1849):

——The Confidence Man, the new species of the Jeremy Diddler recently a subject of police fingering, and still later impressed into service of Burton's comicalities in Chambers Street, is excellently handled by a clever pen in the Merchant's Ledger, which we are glad to see has a column for the credit as well as for the debtor side of humanity. It is not the worst thing that can be said of a country that it gives birth to a confidence man :—

"Who is there that does not recollect, in the circle of his acquaintance, a smart young gentleman who, with his coat buttoned to the throat and hair pushed back, extends his arms at public meetings in a wordy harangue? This is the young confidence man of politics. In private life you remember perfectly well the middle-aged gentleman with well-developed person and white waistcoat, who lays down the law in reference to the state of trade, sub-treasury, and the tariff—and who subscribes steadily to Hunt's excellent Magazine (which he never reads). This is the confidence man of merchandise. * * *

"That one poor swindler, like the one under arrest, should have been able to drive so considerable a trade on an appeal to so simple a quality as the confidence of man in man, shows that all virtue and humanity of nature is not entirely extinct in the nineteenth century. It is a good thing, and speaks well for human nature, that, at this late day, in spite of all the warning of newspapers, men can be swindled.

"The man who is always on his guard, always proof against appeal, who cannot be beguiled into the weakness of pity by any story—is far gone, in our opinion, towards being himself a hardened villain. He may steer clear of petty larceny and open swindling—but mark that man well in his intercourse with his fellows—they have no confidence in him, as he has none in them. He lives coldly among his people—he walks an iceberg in the marts of trade and social life—and when he dies, may Heaven have that confidence in him which he ha not in his fellow mortals!"

J.S. Farmer, Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present, volume 2 (1891) provides this explanation of why the word confidence applies to the deception known at that time as a "confidence trick, dodge, or buck":

Confidence Trick, Dodge, or Buck, subs. phr. (common).—A process of swindling, the basis of which consists in obtaining trust with the deliberate intention of betraying it to your own advantage. A greenhorn meets (or rather is picked up by) a stranger who invites him to drink. The stranger admires him openly, protests his CONFIDENCE in him, and to prove his sincerity hands him over a large amount of money {snide} or valuables {bogus}, with which to walk off and return. The greenhorn does both, whereupon the stranger suggests that it his his turn next, and being favoured with certain proofs of 'confidence,' which in this case are real, decamps and is no more seen. This is but the simplest form of the trick, but the CONFIDENCE MAN is inexhaustible in devices.

The term "confidence man" appeared in the shortened form "con man" by 1889, according to Robert Chapman and Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition, (1995):

con man (or artist) 1 n phr by 1889 A confidence man 2 n phr by early 1900s One adept at persuasion, esp at dishonest or self-serving persuasion

The earliest match I've been able to find for "con man" is from "The Slang of Petty Thieves," in the [New York] Sun (June 19, 1881):

A 'con man' is a confidence man, and a 'joskin' is a countryman unused to the ways of thieves.


The emergence of 'con artist'

J.E. Lighter, Random House Dictionary of American Slang (1994) has the following entry for "con artist":

con artist n. a confidence swindler (now S[tandard] E[nglish]); (hence) a deceiver. [First two cited examples:] 1937 in D[amon] Runyon More Guys 251: He was a natural born con artist. 1949 Monteleone Criminal Slang 56: Con Artists...Swindlers anxious to get something for nothing.

The earliest match I could find for "con artist" is from "Taken for a Rogue: Police Arrest a Britisher as a Chicago Fugitive," in the [Phoenix] Arizona Republican (September 4, 1899):

In point of description there are many particulars in which Smith does not meet the distinguishing marks of Rice. He is only five feet four and a half inches tall and weighs only 165 pounds, as against the weight and height of Rice above quoted. He corresponds to Rice's description in color of eyes, mustache and slow gait, and in no others. The Chicago circular calls Rice an "unusually mouth con man." If Smith is Rice he is the smoothest con artist that ever drew breath, for the prisoner tells a straightforward story, which is backed up by bis memorandum book, in which are entered interesting details of his trip to the United States and other matters of his personal and business life in London for months back.

Less than 16 months later, this interesting discussion appeared in "The Los Angeles Land Boom" in the New York Tribune (January 15, 1901):

"I was through there during the great land boom which culminated so disastrously in 1887. Running our surveys we would frequently come across pegs in the ground, and then we knew that we had found a town site. The law requires a town site to be plotted by a surveyor and to be pegged out. The pegs we usually used for our fires, as we did the signs, which would read: 'Town of Bunco, Block 1, Lot 2.' When we came across these pegs we knew that far away in San Francisco there was a beautifully drawn map of the town of Bunco. Pictures were hung about it of academies, churches, schools, banks, and other buildings, so labelled in large flaring letters, while above in nonpareil type would be the word 'proposed.' A glib tongued real estate agent would be there to sell the lots if wild forecasts of the future and a wholesale disregard of the truth could do so. This was the great Los Angeles boom during which the additions to Los Angeles were run out as far as the top of San Bernardino Mountain, which bears the same relation to Los Angeles that the White Mountains do yo New-York City. The methods of the boomers were breezy and Western. Every day they had free excursions to one or another of the alleged town sites. Everything was free, the best of eatables and drinkables were supplied, and a band was always a component part of the outfit. An orator of no mean ability would depict in glowing terms the possibilities that the future held for the thriving town of Bunco. These real estate orators, in Western parlance, are known as 'bull con artists,' and their gift of speech is wonderful. Invariably the crowd would get excited, and then the lots would be sold like hot cakes. The chances were that in the sale of one lot the promoters would pay for the entire town site; the second lot would cover the expense of surveying, printing, maps, etc.; the third would defray the cost of the excursion. All of the other lots sold would be so much clear profit. I've seen those wretched lots bring all the way from $100 to $5,000 apiece. The entire town sites are not worth the smaller price to-day. The Los Angeles land boom was the most wholesale, sinful, scientific and complete fleecing of suckers that ever was perpetrated in California, and the memory of it is still fresh, but not fragrant, on the Pacific Slope."

A Google Books search turns up another interesting (albeit somewhat later) instance of the expression as part of the longer phrase "bull con artist." From "The Tramp," "Softsoaping the Boss," in Dry Goods Reporter (December 18, 1915):

Skinner sat down in a chair near his boss and began telling a string of lies about meeting the wagon maker [who was actually out of town for an extended period]; about what he had said and what Skinner had said, and about the possibility of selling to this firm.

According to Skinner he had done a grand day's work and by golly he made his boss believe it.

Why, the boss sat there listening, wreathed in grins.

At supper I says: "Skinner, is that the way you hold down your job?"

"Sure," he replied. "What's the use of working when that kind of stuff goes?"

"Well,how long do you think you'll last in this position?" I asked.

"Oh maybe a year. I am good at it," he replied.

"You can't afford to be changing jobs every year," I said.

"Oh, yes, I can," he replied. "All bosses are alike, and there are lots of the. I can work this game for a hundred years and still there would be jobs open for me."

That's what Skinner said. Just what his end will be I haven't the slightest idea.> If he gets thru life on his dope my hat' off to him, for it will show that he is some successful bull con artist.

However, I would not advise one with only average intelligence to follow Skinner's lead.

It takes a very smart person to be a successful liar and thief—much smarter than it takes to be simply honest, earnest, and loyal; and successful in consequence.

...

The knocker, the bull con artist and four flusher must necessarily in time receive the dislike of his co-workers, and if a body can enjoy his work with all the other folks down on him, he is the kind of person I don't want to be—even if he does succeed in becoming the boss' favorite confidential adviser.

Lighter offers this entry for "bull con":

bull con n. {BULL + CON} exaggerated or lying talk; (hence) SNOW JOB. Also bullcorn. Also as v. [First three cited examples:] 1896 [George] Ade Artie 26: I may be a farmer, but it takes better people than you to sling the bull con into me. 1904 Life in Sing Sing 259: He gave them a bull con and they turned him out. He told a plausible story and they [the police] discharged him. 1907 Peele N[orth] C[arolina] to S[outhern] Calif[ornia] 109: Allen was a great bull-con man (hot air man).

And this entry for "bull artist":

bull artist n. a person who habitually exaggerate, lies, or flatters. [First cited example:] 1918 in Rossano Price of Honor 211: He was, like all marines, a "bull" artist.

The clearly related term "bullshit artist" receives this treatment in Lighter:

bullshit artist n. a person who habitually exaggerates, lies, or flatters.—usu. considered vulgar. Cf. BULL ARTIST. [First cited example:] 1942 in M. Curtiss Letters Home 27: Quite a bull-s–– artist.


Conclusions

It appears that "con artist" has been in U.S. use in the sense of "exceedingly accomplished con man" since at least 1899. The term "bull con artist" (which dates to at least 1901) shares the sense of "one who habitually exaggerates, lies, or flatters" with the similar terms "bull artist" and "bullshit artist," but it also carries a strong sense of criminality that sets the term apart from those other terms, which emphasize a person's unrestrained fabrication and fundamental untrustworthiness but don't necessarily involve law-breaking.

In view of the nearness in date of the first occurrences I could find of "con artist" (1899) and "bull con artist" (1901), it isn't clear to me which came first—especially since the 1901 story involving "bull con artist" indicates that the term originated as Western parlance, perhaps in connection with the Los Angeles land boom of 1887.

In any case, in the earliest instances I could find, the terms "con artist" and "bull con artist" seem to have been applied to an exceptionally talented and persuasive swindler—not to a run-of-the-mill, dime-a-dozen, garden-variety con man, the likes of which—then as now—were as thick as flies on a buffalo carcass.

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They are called "artists" because their occupations require some sort of skill; not everyone has the skills necessary to be a "con artist", even though "con artists" aren't good people.

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I feel that usually the term 'con artist' is assigned to those who execute complex schemes, that require a certain degree of creativity and even impersonation, e.g. of wealthy investors, which in itself is already a form of acting. The job of con artists, in a similar way to that of those involved in arts like actors or writers, is to "make you believe", or achieve the suspension of disbelief in their audience.

Wikipedia has even a page dedicated to them: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_con_artists

They are in some way the aristocracy of the scammers or con men. Their peculiarity is that they employ a high level of creativity to run elaborate schemes and that they are also often very successful in achieving their objectives (typically, money).

One difference however, is that often their "art" is not expressed only within the boundaries of their profession but it sometimes absorbs their whole identity, so they'll often need to keep up with their constructed self for a prolonged amount of time or accept that their scheme might fail.

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