English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Fraudsters and other swindlers

Q: I’m editing a bunch of fraud-management documents created by colleagues in Europe, and I’ve been changing “fraudster” to “fraud perpetrator” for American audiences. Do you think my instinct is right, or is “fraudster” acceptable in American English?

A: We’ve found “fraudster” in only one standard American dictionary—the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged—and it says the word is chiefly British.

Not surprisingly, “fraudster” is in the four British dictionaries we’ve checked, defined variously as a swindler, someone who gets money by deceiving people, or a person who commits fraud, especially in business dealings.

Is “fraudster” acceptable in US English?

Well, it depends on the audience. It would be perfectly understandable to an American, and the primary goal of writing is communicating. But it sounds somewhat slangy to American ears—at least to our four American ears.

We like the term, however, and we wouldn’t hesitate using it in casual speech or informal writing. In fact, “fraudster” is a lot easier to find in US publications than in US dictionaries.

A Nov. 11, 1995, article in the New York Times, for example, describes “the victims of an opportunistic credit-card fraudster who also happened to be their waiter.”

And a Jan. 5, 2011, article in The Wall Street Journal begins: “Fraudster Bernard Madoff’s sister-in-law Marion, whose husband, Peter, was the former chief compliance officer at his brother’s firm, is asking $6.5 million for her Palm Beach, Fla., home.”

[After this item was posted, the writer Ben Yagoda pointed out that an article in the Aug. 26, 2013, issue of the New Yorker quotes an art historian comparing the art forger Mark A. Landis to “identity fraudsters.” Another reader had this comment: “I would add that the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners regularly uses the word ‘fraudster’ in its publication.  The word is widely accepted in the United States amongst those who seek to prevent, detect and prosecute fraud.”]

If the documents you’re editing are intended for professionals trying to prevent or control fraud, and if you think it might be a familiar term to them, “fraudster” is fine.  It won’t sound slangy or informal to such readers.

In our opinion, a general audience might find “fraud perpetrator” a bit clunky. For alternatives, consider a term that’s in American dictionaries, “defrauder.” And if your readers would accept a bit of informality, you might occasionally stick in a “deceiver” or a “swindler” (even a “fraudster” or two).

The term “fraudster,” by the way, is relatively new. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1975 issue of the Financial Times, though Merriam-Webster Unabridged dates the first known use of the term to 1960.

The OED notes that the word combines the noun “fraud” with the old suffix “-ster,” which dates back to Anglo-Saxon days.

The Old English version of “-ster” was used to form feminine nouns while the Old English version of the suffix “-er” was used to form masculine nouns, according to Oxford.

In the 15th century, the “-ster” suffix gradually began losing its feminine identity, but a new suffix, “-ess,” showed up to replace it.

The old words “seamster” and “songster,” for example, became “seamstress” and “songstress.” An exception to this etymological evolution is “spinster,” which kept its old suffix.

From the 16th century on, the OED says, writers began using “-ess” to create new words, such as “actress,” “authoress,” “priestess,” and so on.

But the dictionary notes “the tendency of mod. usage” to treat nouns “indicating profession or occupation, as of common gender, unless there be some special reason to the contrary.”

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