A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from December 04, 2004
Smart Alec
Gerald Cohen did research on the New York City origins of "smart alec." A piece on "smart alec" appeared in a New York Times "F.Y.I." column in 2002. Gerald Cohen wrote "smart alecky" comments to the American Dialect Society list on December 1, 2002.

(Oxford English Dictionary)
smart alec
[f. SMART a. + Alec, dim. of personal name Alexander.]

A would-be clever person; a 'know-all'; occas., a man who is ostentatiously smart in dress or manner. Also attrib. or as adj.

1865 Carson (Nevada) Appeal 17 Oct. 2/3 Halloa, old smart Aleckhow is the complimentary vote for Ashley? 1873 J. H. BEADLE Undevel. West vii. 140, I had the pleasure of seeing at least a score of 'smart Alecks' relieved of their surplus cash. 1887 F. FRANCIS Saddle & Mocassin 312 You may talk about..

(American Dialect Society list)
Date: Sun, 1 Dec 2002 12:43:58 -0600
Reply-To: American Dialect Society
Sender: American Dialect Society Mailing List
From: Gerald Cohen
Subject: Re: "Smart Alec" in NY TIMES ignores Cohen


First, my thanks to Barry for mentioning my work on Smart Aleck. I compiled considerable 1840's newspaper material on Aleck Hoag as plausibly being the original smart Alec; but conclusive proof has thus far been elusive. Writing Q.E.D. would therefore be premature.

The account in the NY Times misses the smart Alecky nature of Aleck Hoag. It wasn't simply that he was a celebrated thief but that with some too-clever-by-half methods he tried to welch on his graft commitments to the NYC police. Melinda would entice a stranger to NYC into a dark street where she would embrace him, pickpocket his valuables, and then hold them in her extended arms behind the back of the victim.
Hoag would pass by, take the stolen objects and later split the proceeds with Melinda and the police.

The police provided Melinda and Alec protection in case a victim filed a robbery complaint (The police would get back the stolen item(s), slip them into the victim's clothing, and ask the victim to check his pockets once more.)
Meanwhile, Melinda, having stolen the valuables from the victim's pockets, would find a way to shake him off.

Everything was going swimmingly until Aleck Hoag, tired of
splitting his hard-won gains with the police, decided to operate without them. He told Melinda to take her victims to a cemetery and drop the stolen objects over the wall; Alec would be lying on the other side waiting to receive them.

The police soon discovered this tactic, and Aleck and Melinda
were forced to return to their former method of robbery and splitting the proceeds with the police. But Alec was still dissatisfied and went over to the panel game (two adjacent apartments are rented; a panel door is secretly built to connect the two; Melinda gets victim to lay his clothes neatly on a chair near the panel door; she gets
into bed with the victim, draws the bed curtain, and during the sexual excitement she gives a cough; Aleck enters, steals the valuables, leaves quickly, goes to the front door of Melinda's apartment, gives a furious knock, Melinda says "My God, it's my husband!", victim slips on his clothes and leaves in great haste--presumably via a window.)

But Aleck no longer had the protection of the police, and it was only a matter of time before a victim complained to the police; and the apartment's location was of course known to the victim.

Melinda and Alec were arrested. Melinda was promptly sentenced, but legal proceedings against Aleck dragged on for some time, until his resources were exhausted; then he was sentenced to prison.

My guess in all this is that it was the NYC police who coined the term "Smart Alec." He had dishonestly tried to cut the police out of the spoils, and the police were no doubt delighted by Aleck's subsequent troubles.

The message of the police to other would-be shirkers was (as I
suppose): Don't be like Smart Aleck, who came to grief by being too smart by half; honor your graft commitments or you too will come to grief.

****

Now to two bibliographical details:

1) Barry is correct that my work on "Smart Aleck" appeared in
Comments on Etymology (March 1, 1977)--a series of working papers.
But it was later published formally: "Origin of Smart Aleck," in my Studies in Slang, part 1,
( = Forum Anglicum, vol. 14, part 1). Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Verlag.
1985, pp.85-105. (...)

Posted by Barry Popik
Workers/People • (0) Comments • Saturday, December 04, 2004 • Permalink