Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Smart Alec

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 12, 2010

In 1873, J.H. Beadle wrote in his book The Undeveloped West:

“I had the pleasure of seeing at least a score of SMART ALECKS  relieved of their surplus cash.”

It would appear that after the American Civil war, smart alecks were not very well liked.  But even before during that war, it would appear that the phrase was already well known.  In Carson, Nevada, the local newspaper, The Carson Appeal, published on October 17, 1865 spoke of Nevada having joined the Union:

“Halloa, old SMART ALECK  — how is the complimentary vote for Ashley?”

The Ashley to whom the newspaper referred was Delos Rodeyn Ashley (1828 – 1873) who was elected as a Republican to  the United States Representative from Nevada for the 39th and 40th Congresses from 1865 to 1869.

However, we owe the phrase “smart alec” to the exploits of  New York City’s celebrated pimp, thief, and confidence man, Alec Hoag and his capers of the 1840s.  Hoag, along with his wife Melinda and an accomplice known as “French Jack”, operated a  standard fraud practised by many con artists known as the “panel game.”  This game proved to be a very effective method for prostitutes and their pimps to relieve customers of their money and other valuables. 

The adjective smart as it’s used in this phrase — meaning impudent — dates back to the 15th century, and doesn’t appear that often outside of this expression although once in a while you do hear someone say, “Don’t get smart with me!”

It is said that the police hung the nickname of  “smart Alec” on Alex Hoag because he proved to be a very resourceful thief who outsmarted most everyone — including the police — for the duration he, his wife and their accomplice played the “panel game.”

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