Smart Alec Origin: Why do we say someone’s a Smart Alec?

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We’ve all known Smart Alecs in our time. And most of us have been Smart Alecs at least once in our lives too! It’s those moments when you take joy in sharing something clever you’ve learned and inadvertently come off quite smug and gloaty about it so that you end up irritating your listeners. But all this talk of smart Alecky-ness does raise a curious point: Just who was this smart Alec and what made him so smart?

Who is Smart Alec?

Smart Alecs are named after a man called Alex Hoag, a clever thief who lived in 1840s New York. Or at least this is the best theory we currently have, as put forward by Professor Gerald L. Cohen of the Department of Arts, Languages, and Philosophy at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Why was Alex Hoag bestowed the honor of being so smart that every smartypants thereafter was named after him?

His thieving was intricately planned
Alex wasn’t just an ordinary thief. He would come up with elaborate schemes to steal from his subjects. His most famous technique was to use his prostitute wife Melinda to entice the subjects into their “lair” which had a bedroom containing secret panels. Once the unsuspecting mark was suitably distracted in bed, Alex would sneak in, rifle through his clothes and steal everything he could.

He managed to get some policemen on his side
His expertise was to steal from subjects even if they were right under the noses of the police, and he did this by cleverly establishing ties through a couple of corrupt policemen, who turned a blind eye to his escapades because he paid them off with a percentage of the stolen money.

Eventually he tried to be too smart…
Everything was going well for Alex until he got greedy and tried to short-change his allied policemen from their share. The policemen cottoned on to his tricks and he was soon imprisoned. It was believed to be this final failed attempt to outwit the policemen which led to his mocking nickname “Smart Alex” or “Smart Alec”; an ironic name for being too smart for his own good that it landed him in jail. His excessive attempts to outsmart others led to his downfall and he ended up outsmarting himself.

GL Cohen. 1995. Studies in Slang. Peter Lang Pub Inc
Oxford English Dictionary
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 18th edition

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