Smarmy is a useful word, as anyone who has had to listen to an oleaginous colleague drone on in a department meeting can attest. Unlike most useful words, its origin can be traced to a particular person — who invented it as a joke.
The OED‘s principal definition for smarmy is “Ingratiating, obsequious; smug, unctuous,” and the first citation is from L. Brock, Deductions of Col. Gore, published in 1924: “Don’t you be taken in by that smarmy swine.” The word is widely used today, with more than 42,000 hits on Google News. A recent New York Times theater review says a Munich production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream turned “it into a Midsummer Nightmare, with a smarmy, sadistic Puck who gets his kicks by knocking Athenian lovers unconscious with his spells.”
Looking to antedate the OED, as I do, I found a 1905 use of the word in the Google Books database: a poem called “The Widower,” by Edward Sydney Tylee, published in The Living Age. Tylee is going for an English West Country accent (sometimes referred to as Mummerset):
Moments after I proudly tweeted out my find, Jonathon Green, editor of Green’s Dictionary of Slang, responded with a bit of skepticism: “Looking at other bits of [the] poem allowed by Google Books I’m certain it is a positive sense and not the current one. All simple rustic good fellowship, none of implications of modern ‘smarmy.’”
On reflection, I took his point, although I couldn’t find such a good-fellowship meaning in any reference work or in any other text. The other recognized meaning of smarmy derives from the verb smarm (sometimes spelled smalm or smawm), defined by the OED as “smear, bedaub” and first cited by the dictionary in an 1847 work, A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words. The OED has a secondary definition of smarmy as “smooth and sleek,” with the first citation from a 1909 source: “A tall, slight, smarmy-headed man.” As that suggests, the “smear” meaning became associated with the stuff one smears on one’s hair. A little quality time on Google Books gave me an antedate, from a 1903 play by Henry V. Esmond, When We Were Twenty-One:
It makes sense that “unctuous"-smarmy, with its sense of behavioral greasiness, would have emerged from the hair sense of the word. And a short time after our initial Twitter exchange, Jonathon Green posted a true antedate, from a 1916 edition of an Australian newspaper, the Barrier Miner, in New South Wales: “I wonder what his game is […] He doesn’t look the sort she could make a friend of; too smarmy for my taste.”
I kept looking and eventually came upon an even earlier use of modern smarmy. As I said up top, it was a joke. A London journal called The Academy ran “Literary Competitions” in each issue, much as New York magazine and The Washington Post have done in later years. Here are the rules for No. 14:
Using Google Books, I found an article about the results of the competition, including this list of some of the best responses:
After I sent that out over Twitter, the language maven Ben Zimmer located the original article from the January 14, 1899, issue of The Academy announcing the winner of the competition. It revealed that one B.R.L., of Brighton, had come up with the idea that a word for “saying treacly things which do not sound genuine” should be smarmy.
The Internet is full of articles about notable neologisms, such as witticism, coined by John Dryden, and serendipity, invented by Horace Walpole. But none of them includes smarmy, and the very fact that B.R.L.'s humorous definition in a literary contest should eventually have become widely adopted — even as screel, scrungle, and gluxy disappeared — I find amazing.
I hope that doesn’t sound smarmy.