smart alec

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smart alec

Post by why » Fri Apr 01, 2005 1:26 am

where did the saying smart alec come from?
Signature: dave wolverton

smart alec

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Apr 01, 2005 5:58 am

Dave, Jonathon Green provided what he believes to be the explanation in Ask the Wordwizard, which you may find in the Archives by doing a search on this phrase. Michael Quinion expands on this explanation in World Wide Words, which I provide below. However, Green is the only source I’ve seen who accepts this as THE explanation. All other sources I have checked either don’t mention it (e.g. Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Picturesque Expressions by Urdang) or provide it as only a possibility (e.g. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable).

For those who might be unfamiliar with the expression I’ll first provide a definition, which both ‘Ask The Wordwizard’ and Quinion neglected to do.

SMART ALEC(K) [sometime capitalized and sometimes not]: An American term for an impudent or obnoxiously self-assertive or conceited individual who thinks they know everything and are not shy about saying so; a pompous no-it-all; a haughty, self-important fool; a wise guy. <“There’s always one smart aleck who refuses to follow instructions.”>

Hence the nouns SMART-ALEC(K)ISM, SMART-ALECKRY, and the adjective SMART-ALECKY

The adjective SMART, in the sense ‘impudent,’ as it is here used, dates back to the 15th century, but doesn’t appear that often outside of this expression. I do hear it occasionally, though, as in “Don’t get smart with me, young man!” Most sources agree that the combination ‘smart Aleck,’ referring to some particular Aleck or Alexander, first appeared in the U.S. in the 1860s and Quinion says in his following discussion that a plausible candidate has been found, while Green thinks that it is more than plausible.

World Wide Words by Michael Quinion

SMART ALEC(K): For many years, Smart Alec or Smart Aleck was thought to be no more than a generic character, first cousin to Clever Dick. The problem with seeking his original is the obvious one that, with so many possible candidates, only a stroke of luck might lead a researcher to the right Alec. A plausible candidate has been put forward by Professor Gerald Cohen (for the full story, see G L Cohen, Studies in Slang Part 1, 1985). He argues that the original was Alex Hoag, a celebrated and clever thief in New York in the 1840s.

Hoag worked with his prostitute wife Melinda and an accomplice called French Jack to fleece unwary visitors to the city who were looking for a little fun. The key to his activities was that they did so in close association with two police officers, who shared the loot and provided protection. Most was done by what was in effect pickpocketing, with Melinda taking the victim’s pocketbook while they were otherwise engaged and surreptitiously handing it to Hoag or French Jack as they walked by. So far, so commonplace. However, his downfall came because he got into financial difficulties and tried to cheat his police protectors out of their share of the loot. One way was that Hoag lay behind a wall in a churchyard and had Melinda drop the goods over the wall to him so that the constables couldn’t see the exchange.

Another of the standard frauds, practised by many, was called the panel game. George Wilkes, the assistant editor of the Subterranean, met Hoag while Wilkes was falsely imprisoned in the infamous New York prison called The Tombs. Wilkes described the trick in a diary of 1844, The Mysteries of the Tombs: “Melinda would make her victim lay his clothes, as he took them off, upon a chair at the head of the bed near the secret panel, and then take him to her arms and closely draw the curtains of the bed. As soon as everything was right and the dupe not likely to heed outside noises, the traitress would give a cough, and the faithful Aleck would slily enter, rifle the pockets of every farthing or valuable thing, and finally disappear as mysteriously as he entered.” The victim was then persuaded to leave in a hurry through a window by Alec banging on the door, pretending to be an aggrieved husband who has suddenly returned from a trip away.

Hoag used this trick to avoid paying off his police protectors, so that when he was caught, the police were in no mood to aid him. He was sentenced to jail, but escaped through the help of his brother, only to be recaptured following extensive police searches (by one of those odd coincidences, having been recognised by Wilkes).

Professor Cohen suggests that Alex Hoag was given the sobriquet of smart Alec by the police for being a resourceful thief who outsmarted himself by trying to avoid paying graft. It’s impossible to be certain this is the true story, since the expression doesn’t appear in print until 1865, but it does seem extremely plausible.
<1865 “Halloa, old SMART ALECK [[capitalized]]—how is the complimentary vote for Ashley?”—‘Carson Appeal’ (Nevada), 17 October, page 2/3>

<1873 “I had the pleasure of seeing at least a score of ‘SMART ALECKS [[cap.]] ’ relieved of their surplus cash.”—‘The Undeveloped West’ by J. H. Beadle, vii. page 140>

<1904 “Thar was a SMART ALEC [[cap.]] of a feller from Little Dogtrot over in the mountains.”—‘Georgians’ by W. N. Harben, ix. page 92>

<1929 “I wouldn't have minded so much if he hadn't been so SMART ALECKY [[cap]] about it.”—‘Good Companions’ by J. B. Priestley, III. v. page 579>

<1934 “Nowhere was there protection from those SMART ALECS [[cap.]], the primary poison of the whole process, who piled up the rents.”—‘Experiment in Autobiography’ by H. G. Wells, I. v. page 276>

<1941 “He's a SMART-ALECK [[l.c.]]. I can see already he thinks he knows more than I do.”—‘What Makes Sammy Run?’ by B. Schulberg, xii. pate 221>

<1958 “‘Brouhaha’ remains a hodgepodge of SMARTALECKRY aimed . . . at the intellectual teddy-boy set.”—‘Spectator,’ 5 September, page 306/2>

<1962 “A sophisticated bit of SMART-ALECKISM [[l.c.]] like the ‘nine-minute opera’ ‘Introductions and Goodbyes.’—‘Listener,’ 21 June, page 1091/3>

<1979 “SMART ALEC [[l.c.]], aren't you? Smart and smug like all you intellectual lot.”—‘Hooky & the Villainous Chauffer’ by L. Meynell, vii. page 99>
(Oxford English Dictionary)

Ken G – March 31, 2005

smart alec

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Apr 01, 2005 7:09 am

Could one describe a no-it-all as a habitual naysayer?
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smart alec

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Apr 01, 2005 6:53 pm

Erik, And would that member of the aristocracy, the no-bull-man, be a guy who habitually doesn’t take any shit?

Ken – April 1, 2005

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