Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Smart As A Whip

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 28, 2015

When someone is said to be smart as a whip, it means that person is able to think and reason logically to a high degree, with a small degree of error in  his or her thinking.  In other words, intellectually speaking, they are blindingly brilliant.

On March 11, 2003 the column by Chip and Jonathan Carter entitled, “Inside The Video Games” reviewed the game “Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb” for the Rome News-Tribune.  The game was available for Xbox and would be available for the PlayStation2 in May.  The reviewers loved the game, going so far as to say that the “game play is a work of art.”  What’s more, both Chip and Jonathan gave the game an overall rating of A+ for overall awesomeness.  As a sort of play on the fact that Indiana Jones has a penchant for whips, the review was titled, “Smart As A Whip.”

The Telegraph of Nashua, New Hampshire published their “Around The Town” column on March 13, 1965 with the idiom in the article, “Some Old Timers Are Smart As A Whip.”  It set the tone for the piece, and began with this paragraph.

Some of the senior citizens who call at the office to talk about the days of their youth are as smart as a whip and can recall their early days here with much more facility, I have found, than the later generations.  If you can make them feel easy you usually wind up with a fund of information about Nashua, of their time anyway.

The Bend Bulletin newspaper of October 17, 1952 ran an ad for Lester Hou’s Central Oregon Motors in Redmond, Oregon.  The dealership was a Mercury dealership, and they were proud to trumpet the benefits of the Merc-O-Matic drive.  At the time, there were three choices for a transmission on a Mercury:  Standard, Touch-O-Matic Overdrive, and No-Shift Merc-O-Matic Drive.  They blended a second idiom into the advertisement by stating that “whip smart and saddle fancy” was an old Western saying.

The same advertisement for other dealerships were published in other newspapers such as the Spokane Daily Chronicle, the Spokesman-Review, the Ellensburg Daily Record, and other major newspapers in America.  The copy was the same from newspaper to newspaper, and the idiom that was upfront and bolded was “Smart as a whip.”

In the November 30, 1938 edition of the Times Daily, the newspaper ran a photograph of Mrs. Angier Priscilla Duke (the former Priscilla St. George) in black boots, creamy tan whipcord breeches, plaid sports coat, man-tailored shirt, and a foulard tie.  She was a fetching woman, and the photograph was captioned, “Smart As A Whip.”

Priscilla wed Angier Duke (30 November 1915 – 29 April 1995) in Tuxedo Park on January 2, 1937.  He was the son of Angier Buchanan Duke and Cordelia Drexel Biddle of Philadelphia which means that the 21-year-old bridegroom was not only a member of the Duke family but the Biddle family as well.  The Duke family fortune came from the American Tobacco Company that was founded in 1890 by his great-uncle James Buchanan Duke, and the Biddle family fortune was due to banking.

The bride’s father was the grandson of the late George F. Baker Sr. who, upon his death, was hailed as the last great titan of Wall Street, and was known to be the financial genius of First National Bank.  The bride’s mother was a first cousin of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Their wedding was followed by what the newspapers called “a grand tour, round-the-world honeymoon” that kept them away from New York for eight months.  Unfortunately, she was the first of his four wives, and they divorced in 1939, just two years after they wed.

The 1882 book “Picturesque B. and O.: Historical and Descriptive” by Joseph Gladding Pangborn (9 April 1848 – 17 August 1914) provided an enchanting account of crossing the American countryside by way of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company trains as they headed out from the Jersey City depot.

The Pangborn family was one that was rich in American history.  Joseph Gladding Pangborn’s father signed up for volunteer service in the Union Army when the Civil War broke out, and was fatally wounded at Forth Ethan Allen in Virginia.  His mother’s family was steeped in American history.  John Gladding had arrived at Newburyport, Plymouth Colony in 1660,and settled in Bristol, Rhode Island where he and his wife, Elizabeth Rogers raised four children.

The American Civil War broke out, and at fourteen years of age, he enlisted with the Union Army as a drummer boy.  He was assigned to the Forty-fourth Regiment New York Infantry.  In 1865, he served in Texas, and in 1866 he returned to his home in Albany, New York.  He became a reporter and worked for the New York Times, the New York Tribune, The Republican (in Chicago), and the Kansas City Times.

By 1876, he had moved on to a new career with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, and on May 1, 1880, he joined the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad as a general advertising agent, then moving on to special representative status.

When the book was published, it contained 70 sketches along with the prose. And early in the book, smart as a whip was used.

Young Luap was, in his way, as striking a possession as any in the menagerie, and although the last of the Four to be trotted out, was by no means entitled to such place by reason of characteristics lacking; indeed, he possessed them to such a degree as to almost require an apology for not mentioning him first.  Smart as a whip, but far from as pliable, he comprehended more in a moment than the balance of the quartet could grasp in a week.

In the “Dictionary of the Gaelic Language” by Norman Macleod, the idiom is recorded as smart as a lash and is considered to be a provincial term.

But it’s in the “Recreative Review, or Eccentricities of Literature and Life” in Volume 1 that the connection between being smart and whips is made in an essay that begins on page 336. In the essay published in 1821, a passage talks about the virtues of whipping a boy to improve him.

But the practice is an old one.  Doctor Tempete is mentioned by Rabelais as a celebrated flaggelator of school-boys, in the college of Montaigne, in Paris. Buchanan was wont to tickle his royal disciple, James the First, and joked with the ladies of the court about it.  And, with respect to that of our public schools, it may be of service; for every one must allow it makes a boy smart.

The fact of the matter is that as early as the 17th century the word smart meant both to be strong, quick, and intense in manner and to be painful.  So while a whip might cause pain and smart, someone would be strong, quick, and intense in manner in the same way a whip is strong, quick, and intense.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published variation to the idiom than the one in 1821, it is reasonable to believe that the idiom goes back at least to 1800, and most likely much earlier.

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