One cannot create a realist con artist without knowing how to speak like one. But a confidence man from 1862 will be more likely to use different terms than a modern day grifter. Here is my quick guide to the lingo of conmen.
Confidence man, Conman, Con artist, or Grifter
Conman is the short and sweet way of saying confidence man. This term was coined in 1849 by the New York City presses when a conman known as William Thompson would steal people’s watches by simply asking for them. Yes, you read that last part right. He would walk up to a wealthy person, pretend to know them, gain their confidence, then ask them if they trusted him enough to hold their watch until the following day. Sadly, people were stupid enough to hand over their watches and Thompson would ride off into the sunset a little richer.
Confidence man is probably the least used term in a modern setting. Since it was coined in 1849 I can see it being very common in an older setting. Anything before 1849 would have used more common terms, such as scammer.
Grifter would also be less likely to pass through your character’s lips in a modern setting since it is an older term (not as old as confidence man though). It came into use in the early 20th century and is suspected to be a combination of grafter (meaning scammer) and drifter (a reflection of the grifter lifestyle). While I know this term is used in the popular (and highly recommended) show Leverage, I wouldn’t personally throw it into your writing unless your setting is the early part of the 20th century (think 1920s-1930s) because that would have been this word’s high time.
Conman vs. Con artist
These are both rather common for a contemporary setting but I would expect your conman to prefer the term con artist (it sounds more professional and less scum bagish). The detective/policeman tailing him would more likely use conman (since he doesn’t much care for the conman’s line of work) but the choice is up to you as the author.
The mark is probably the most common term a conman would use for his victim. It originates from the 1800s carnivals where the outdoor vendors would smack the easily suckered customers on the back with a dust-covered hand so that the other stalls would know who the easy targets were. This term is nice because it can be used for a wide rang of settings (since it is still used today), but if you’d like to add to your conman’s vocabulary, here are some more terms you could use.
Sucker: for a really easy mark or a cocky conman.
Gulls: short for gullible, also would work best with a stuck up conman.
While these two are options that I’ve read about, I haven’t personally heard much about their use or time period setting so it is up to you if you want to use them.
For the life of me I couldn’t find much else on conman lingo and their origins, but I did find a general list of terms a conman would use. If I had to guess, you probably could use these terms for any setting, but a modern one would be best. But don’t let that hinder you, I’ll be using some of these terms in my work, which is a medieval setting.
Click here for another list of terms a criminal might use. I’m not sure how reputable or trust worthy this site is but there are some interesting terms there that you can use to spice up your story. Just don’t go crazy, novels with too much accents or insider language get old real quick.
Types of Cons
A Conman’s Guides to Picking Marks