Priceonomics

You’ll find him in nearly every friend circle, wryly smiling to himself as he unleashes what he deems to be the ultimate pun. You’ll hear him spouting off his “expert-level” knowledge on any given topic without the slightest inclination to entertain disagreements. You’ll feel his aura of pretentiousness pervade the room as he lectures you on politics, business, or music theory.  

He’s the “smart alec.”

Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a person who is irritating because he behaves as if he knows everything,” the smart alec (or aleck -- it’s interchangeable) is a person we all know: cocky, self-assured, incredulous to anyone who dares challenge his logic.

But the phrase is actually based on a real-life man -- a criminal who unsuccessfully tried to outsmart the police in the 1860s -- and tracing its history yields a rather fascinating evolution.

The Original Smart Alec

In his etymology series, Studies in Slang, Missouri University of Science and Technology professor Gerald Cohen surmises that the term “smart Alec” derives from a mannamed Alexander Hoag.

Born in New York around 1809, Alexander Hoag was presumably conniving as a youngster; by his mid-20s, he’d already established himself as one of the city’s preeminent con-artists.

In the 1840s, he set up a prostitution ring, made himself “head pimp,” and devised a ploy to hustle customers: his wife, Melinda would entice a man into a dark alley, embrace him, pick his pockets, then slyly hand the goods off to a lurking Hoag. When reports of these thefts began circulating, Hoag decided it would be best to buy himself a little security; secretly, he let two corrupt police officers in on his operation, then agreed to split the profits with them in exchange for their silence.

After earning himself a bit of cash, Hoag moved on to a more elaborate scheme. 

In his 1844 book, The Mysteries of the Tombs, New York editor George Wilkes, who met Hoag in a state prison, recounted the con:

“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, Melinda would give a cough, and the faithful Alec would slyly enter, rifle the pockets of every farthing or valuable thing, and finally disappear as mysteriously as he entered.”

For some time, the routine worked brilliantly -- but eventually, Hoag’s smugness got the best of him. Usually, the police would be stationed outside the hotel, eagerly awaiting their share; Hoag, who fancied himself clever as a fox, decided he could outsmart them by lying about his hauls, or by keeping them stashed in secret locations. 

When the cops found out about this in the early 1850s, Hoag was swiftly imprisoned.

The Evolution of “Smart Alec”

Ten years after Hoag’s arrest, “smart alec” entered the American lexicon, initially as 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, in an 1862 Nevada newspaper article, was used to refer to a know-it-all convict.

A search of the New York Times archives yields dozens of results for the term in the late 1800s, most of which are used to describe criminals -- and all of which capitalize “Aleck” (or Alec), a shorthand of “Alexander.”

By the early 20th century, the term seemed to morph outside of the police slang realm, and into widespread use -- usually in reference to a “bumptious, conceited wise guy.” An early example of this is made apparent in a 1907 article, in which a man tells the karmic story of his annoying, nosey neighbor:

“About eighteen months ago, my brother, a carpenter at Plano, Iowa, hid $60 in an old round oak stove. His wife filled it full of waste paper and burned it up. A smart Alec (a neighbor) said it served him right. That same smart Alec then put $1,100 in the nearest bank...and lost it in less than a year.”

In another instance, in 1915, a club owner was brought before court after “insulting fellow hotel patrons” with snarky, self-assured remarks. The Police Magistrate proceeded to fine the man $25 for being a “smart Alec.”

As the phrase weaseled its way into every-day speech in the 1920s, Hoag’s story was commemorated. Vaudeville actor Frank Fay produced “The Smart Alec,” a play about a gangster who tries to outsmart authorities and fails. Despite spending $100,000 on the production, it “fell to pieces on the road” and the ever-confident Fay had to pull it from the stage.

Over the next 40 years, the term seemed to infiltrate every facet of society: it was the name of prized racehorses, the title of books, and the Advertising Council’s mascot -- even an x-rated film (Smart Aleck, 1951) harkened to the phrase’s origins in prostitution. A Gallup Poll conducted during John F. Kennedy’s presidential run in 1960 yielded that the most common complaint against the candidate was that he was a “smart Alec.”

Today, the American Heritage Dictionary and Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (both fairly reputable sources for etymologists) agree that “smart Alec” most likely derived from Alexander Hoag. While absolute verification of this isn’t possible, the similarities -- matching time frames, criminal origins, and the capitalization of “Alec” -- are compelling enough for most phonologists to sanction the tale. 

So, next time you call your friend (or child) a smart alec, keep in mind that you're comparing him to a 19th century pimp.

Written by Zachary Crockett (follow him on Twitter here)

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