On our very first day at the National Defence Academy, Captain Sajjan Singh Batti, our Divisional Officer addressed us on 12 January 1979. One sentence of that address still hangs in my mind – “All those from the Military/ Sainik Schools, don’t presume that you are ‘Smart Alecs’ and know all the tricks of the trade.”
That was the first time I heard the phrase ‘Smart Alec.’ From the context I made out its meaning to be a person trying to outsmart the system and get away with it.
Recently I researched into the etymology of Smart Alec.
Oxford English Dictionary defines a Smart Alec as ‘a person who behaves as if they know everything and likes to show people this in an annoying way.’
If Oxford defines so, what does Cambridge define it as – ‘someone who tries to appear smart or who answers questions in a funny way that annoys other people.’
Mariam Webster Dictionary In my view gives a better definition ‘obnoxiously conceited and self-assertive person with pretensions to smartness or cleverness.’
One must have come across many Smart Alecs and one must have turned into a Smart Alec in some situation. Generally Smart Alecs are known to be boastful, appear very friendly, giving out ‘expert advice’ on anything and everything under the sun. When the Smart Alec becomes a quite person, scheming his plans, keeping his cards close to his chest, he becomes dangerous.
Did you know that Smart Alec was a real man – a New York pimp named Alexander Hoag, who operated in connivance with his prostitute wife Melinda? The same is chronicled in ‘Studies in Slang’ by Missouri University professor Gerald Cohen.
In the 1840s, Alexander Hoag with his wife Melinda devised a ploy to hustle men Melinda enticed and brought to her apartment. Melinda made her victim remove and hang his clothes. Alexander who hid behind a secret panel entered the room and disappeared with all the valuables in the victim’s dress pockets.
After some time, Alexander banged on the door, and Melinda made her customer believe that her husband had returned early from some trip and was at the door. The victim grabbed his clothes and bolted out of the room through the window.
When her customers complained to the New York Police, Alexander bought out two corrupt police officers with an agreement to split the booty. The police soon discovered Alexander was cheating them out of their share by this new tactic and arrested Alexander and Melinda.
Investigators of New York Police were dumbfounded by the smartness of Alexander’s operations that they started referring to him as Smart Alec. Then it became a police slang for a criminal who was too smart for his own good, or whose cockiness led to his arrest. Its first known printed use was in an 1862 Nevada newspaper article, used the term to refer to a ‘know-it-all’ convict.
The term ‘Smart Alec’ got prominence in the early 20th century but became part of everyday speech as a slang only around 1950. A porn film Smart Aleck was released in 1951, justifying the slang’s origin to a pimp and a prostitute.