Etymological Serendipity: Smart Aleck and Heck Of A Guy

Coincidence & Names

Several years ago, a popular Chicago radio host would, once a week or so, crack wise, first noting that Lou Gehrig died from Lou Gehrig’s Disease and then asking, in mock amazement, “Dying from a disease with the same name as his – what are the odds of that happening?”

Today’s post offers a less startling and more genuine (and more convoluted) coincidence of names.

Consider, if you will, the handy, all-American term, Smart Alec (AKA Smart Aleck).

Smart Alec(k): The Definition

Smart aleck is defined by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth Edition. 2000) as

1. A person regarded as obnoxiously self-assertive.
2. An impudent person.

WordNet , by my lights, is more on point, describing a smart aleck as

1. An upstart who makes conceited, sardonic, insolent comments.

Less officially, Smart Alec, it seems to me, carries the connotation that the individual so indicated is likely to get his comeuppance as a result of being “too smart for his own good.” There is an unmistakable sarcasm included in the meaning, but, as used in today’s vernacular, that disapproval falls far short of contempt and is often mixed with amusement or even fondness. Few folks called Smart Alec, for example, appear to take violet umbrage.

Smart Alec, wise ass, and wiseacre all appear to be synonyms.

Smart Alec(k): The Origin

The major dictionaries, including those in the specialty areas of idiom and slang, are in consensus that Smart Aleck, a term that first appeared in the U.S. in the 1860s, most likely refers to a specific, real-life Alec, Aleck, Alex, or Alexander.1

By far the most popular candidate promoted by professional and amateur etymologists as the Smart Aleck prototype is a New York (of course) pimp, thief, and confidence man, named “Alec,” who with the assistance of his wife and an associate, made his money not only by abetting prostitution but also by stealing from the customers who availed themselves of those services.

Alec’s specialty was The Panel Game. It was not uncommon in that era for the customers to celebrate the completion of their festivities with a refreshing slumber. While hardly an efficient use of brothel staff and real estate, this custom did lend itself to the augmentation of income by the pimp, who would surreptitiously enter the room while the mark was asleep to pilfer his wallet. As this practice became more widespread, the more enlightened or too often burnt customers blocked the door to the room to prevent such shenanigans. Alec (and others, no doubt) countered this strategy with the use of sliding wall panels. In The Mysteries of the Tombs, published in 1844, Wilkes described the trick after meeting our Alec:2

Melinda [Alec’s wife] 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 Alec would slily enter, rifle the pockets of every farthing or valuable thing, and finally disappear as mysteriously as he entered.

Wilkes goes on to explain that Alec would then hammer on the door, pretending to be the enraged, betrayed husband, thus convincing the victim that a prompt retreat through a handy window would be the propitious course of action.

Alec, however, used the panel game and other subterfuges not only to enhance his corporate revenue by increasing the number of successful thefts but also to decrease business expenses by avoiding the notice of the local constabulary and the resultant necessity of making the already contracted payoffs to them for immunity from arrest. While this may have led to short-term gains, the long term impact on the bottom line proved catastrophic. When Alec was inevitably caught in one crime or another, his former protectors in the police were disinclined to help, and Alec was consequently convicted and imprisoned.

G.L. Cohen, author of Studies in Slang Part 1 (1985), argues that those police endowed our hero with the nickname “Smart Aleck” for outsmarting himself in his clever but ultimately foolish attempt to avoid paying his duly owed graft. Cohen also notes, in an online forum of American Dialect Society, that “I [Cohen] compiled considerable 1840’s newspaper material on [this Alec] as plausibly being the original smart Alec; but conclusive proof has thus far been elusive. Writing Q.E.D. would therefore be premature.”

This unproven hypothesis seems to have been tentatively adopted by many sources, including the American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed., 2000) and Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (16th ed., 1999), accepted as a possibility by most others, and actively refuted by none.

And This Is A Heck Of A Guy Post Because … ?

Well, first of all, this etymological expedition has revealed a factoid (or, in this case, I suppose, a possibilitoid) that is precisely the kind of arguably interesting and almost certainly useless tidbit of information that forms the core of the Heck Of A Guy Database.

But the Heck Of A Guy special interest in the origin of Smart Alec arises from the last name of that original Alec, which turns out to be “Hoag.” “H-O-A-G,” is also, as some readers have already noted, the abbreviation of “Heck Of A Guy.” Some of those same readers, coincidentally, have also noted that the Heck Of A Guy personality composition includes a significant chunk of Smart-Aleckry.

And what are the odds of that?

  1. The notion that the term references a particular person “most likely” is, it should be noted, modified by “most likely.” While less numerous than in the past, there remain some commentators who believe the “Aleck” in “Smart Aleck” to be no more than a generic archetypal character. This theory is a footnote to this post because it distracts from the serendipitous climax of the main entry. []
  2. The source for the quote and information from The Mysteries of the Tombs is the Wikipedia entry for Smart Alec []

0 responses to “Etymological Serendipity: Smart Aleck and Heck Of A Guy

  1. Mrs. Linklater

    I now know why Smart Aleck evolved into Smartass.