Get Smart People

Political meme

Political meme

I’ve proven I’m not too good at touting the Word of the Year. A couple of years ago, I was all on about curate, and it didn’t even get a mention in the end-of-year tally.

Nevertheless, I am giving it another try. The word I have in mind is smart. Mind you, I don’t mean smart in the sense of smart phone or smart card or smart bomb: the “smart” in those formulations seems to signify merely that the device or object purports to mimic the reactions of a human with rather limited intelligence.

No, I mean smart in the sense defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “clever, intelligent, knowledgeable.” (Clever is the current British equivalent of American smart, whereas in Britain, smart almost always means stylish or fashionable.) That smart is everywhere these days, often preceded by very or followed by people. All of these quotes appeared in The New York Times just in the last week:

  • Over the years, I’ve tried to hire a lot of smart people, people who were smarter than me.”—Bill Marriott, hotel executive
  • “‘The Big Bad Wolf Goes on Vacation’ is Delphine Perret’s very smart and thoroughly beguiling follow-up to the similarly marvelous ‘Big Bad Wolf and Me.’”
  • Mike Darnell is “a smart and fearless executive who will be missed.”—Rupert Murdoch
  • “… great and smart and witty and funny.”—the director Barry Sonnenfeld on an East Hampton restaurant hostess
  • “The songs on [country singer Shane McAnally's] debut were smart and well-sung.”
  • Television critic Mike Hale on Behind the Candelabra: “it’s full of smart, funny details—perfectly sewn in place, like the rhinestones on one of [Michael] Douglas’s blinding costumes.”
  • Mike Hale on the new TV season: “It’s relatively high in shows that promise stylish and smart entertainment.”
  • Mike Hale on Motive: “It’s reasonably smart, reasonably interesting and reasonably well acted without being particularly good.”

A couple of weeks before, Sally Jewell was quoted in the Times on her strategy for starting out as Secretary of the Interior: ”You have to listen to very, very smart people who know what they’re doing and who can help you prioritize.”

Smart has historically had all sorts of meanings, as verb and adjective. Some mid-19th-century OED citations, with their quotation marks, allow you to see the beginnings of (seemingly then Texan, now all-over American) sense of “intelligent”:

By 1888, an OED citation suggests, the meaning was sufficiently widespread as not to need quotes: “In America every smart man is expected to be able to do anything he turns his hand to.”

Still, this sense took a while to become the dominant American one. I sampled the Times’ use of smart in 1913, 100 years ago, and 90 percent or more of the time it meant stylish rather than intelligent: for example, “Smart cheeks are being made up for Spring in two-tone effects.” By 1965, the percentage was roughly reversed. I chose that year because it was then, according to Google Ngram data, that smart started a gradual ascent in the United States. It really took off beginning in the late ’80s, and surpassed intelligent in 2000. (Ngram data only goes up to 2008.)

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The presence of wise on that chart (with its own interesting recent ascent) reminds me to note a third relevant meaning of smart: behavior or remarks befitting a wise guy. In Eugene O’Neill 1933 Ah, Wilderness, Mrs. Miller says,  “You be quiet! Did I ever! You’re getting too smart!” The OED dates the expression smart alec (originally smart Aleck) to 1877 and smart ass  to 1951.

But today smart is most often used approvingly and unironically. Why? I suggest that the word is well suited for our times. Its application appears to be mainly to individuals in government and business, on the one hand, and to entertainers and their output, on the other. It’s popular in the former case because our problems and challenges (whether dealing with global warming or terrorism or launching an IPO) seem so daunting and sometimes intractable that they cry out for a more speedy, effectual, and penetrating quality than mere intelligence.  It’s popular in the latter case because, as the Times’ Mike Hale well knows, so much of what’s generally on offer is so stupid.

Still, I would advise caution before completely casting our lot with very smart people. After all, the jokers behind Enron were fond of calling themselves “the smartest guys in the room.” That phrase—TSGITR—was the title of a book, then movie, about the scandal, but predates it by a good bit (it first shows up in the Lexis-Nexis database in 1985) and suggests some of the smug hubris that can come with this particular kind of intelligence. Richard Ben Cramer wrote in his 1992 book What It Takes, “Dukakis does not like to be the dumbest guy in the room. Michael is always the smartest guy in the room.” In 1995, an anonymous Democratic activist disparaged Mario Cuomo as “someone who always has to be the smartest guy in the room.” The following year, William Safire imagined Bill Clinton (himself known as a proud SGITR) reflecting about a potential Secretary of Defense, “the trouble with John [Deutch] is that he’s the smartest guy in the room and is driven to make sure everybody knows it.”

In some circles, Newt Gingrich is known for being smart. But as former congressman, current TV host Joe Scarborough once remarked, “Let me just say, if Newt Gingrich is the smartest guy in the room, leave that room.”

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