So what is so wrong with being ‘common’?

Stores are hoping for good times with customers rushing in for some bargains. 
Stores are hoping for good times with customers rushing in for some bargains. Photo: JACKY GHOSSEIN

STORES have been having a tough time lately, with some wishing for a return of the good times where crowds stampeded in a rush for the latest bargains.

I recall that a few years ago one store manager described his customers as idiots because of their behaviour while they were throwing their money at him.

But the word idiot was probably a bit better than calling customers prostitutes.

But there was a time when a customer was a woman of ill-repute, not simply someone who pushed her way into the bargains department.

Shakespeare mentioned customer a few times and he wasn't very complimentary. Those of you who have read Othello might remember the section that says: "I marry her! What? A customer!" In All's Well That Ends Well he has the king of France suggesting a person was now "a common customer".

But even in Shakespeare's time the links between a customer and a prostitute were lessening.

Samuel Johnson in his dictionary, published in 1755, said a customer was a common woman, but Johnson added that "this sense is now obsolete".

The word found its way into our language a long time ago from the Latin consuescere and the French custodne and custome.

In time the word customer lost its unsavoury image and a customer became known as a person who patronised a store or market.

People such as lawyers, accountants and architects, however, preferred not to have customers. They preferred the word clients.

Some upmarket stores have preferred the word client to customer. But Eric Partridge in his Usage and Abusage said the correct term in relation to tradesmen was customer. Then Partridge added the unanswered question: "And what's wrong with customer anyway?"

After a long search, I came across a letter from a Bathurst doctor, published in a newspaper many years ago in which he said health professionals treating asthma sufferers had been "instructed by the NSW Health Department that we should henceforth refer to those who come for this help as customers, not clients".

"To me, the word customer implies that money or something equivalent changed hands. Banks, shops and prostitutes have customers," he said.

As for the expression "the customer is always right", most experts say the expression is an American one and was the idea of either Marshall Field or H Gordon Selfridge, who both worked together at one stage. John Wanamaker also made good use of the expression.

I occasionally watch a television program where customs people at airports question new arrivals who have a poor understanding of English.

Watching these interviews, with the new arrivals apparently struggling to understand what is being demanded of them, I can't help thinking of the Basil Fawlty line "he's from Barcelona".

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Although my mathematics isn't very good (they say journalists can't add up) I believe this is my 900th weekly column.

At various times it has been published, at no charge, by newspapers in every state of Australia. It started in 1995 as a gentle encouragement to young journalists to think about what they were writing and it grew from there.

I have often been asked why "no charge" but put that down to personal weakness. It was intended to be education rather than a means of making money.

The newspaper column led to the publication of two books, My Word and Ringo. Whether the column has resulted in a boost to journalistic standards is open to debate, but it keeps me off the streets.


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