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Smarty pants

Q From Lisa Birnbach: Do you have any idea from whence we get the expression smarty pants? It has lately been concerning me. I obviously have too much free time on my hands.

A No, you just have a well-developed curiosity about the history of our language — welcome to the club.

Most English speakers, I would guess, know this classic Americanism for a know-all who, like others of his type, often knows less than he thinks he does or would like us to think he does. The books say it dates from the early 1940s, but it’s really a little older. A record of that title by the society bandleader and pianist Eddy Duchin came out in 1939. Its first appearance in print I’ve turned up is from 1937, in a story in a Wisconsin newspaper in which a coach is giving advice to a rookie football player: “And listen — you’ve got to kid him. Get his goat. Call him ‘hot shot,’ ‘big britches,’ ‘smarty pants’ or even ‘Toots’ until he gets so nervous he doesn’t know which goal is which.”

A waspish description of the type appeared in an Ohio newspaper the following year: “But the Smarty Pants breed is peculiar to the 20th Century. Unlike the common garden variety of Swell Heads, the Smarty Pants is not happily content with grabbing the spotlight for himself — he must kick someone else in the shin while so doing. It is not enough to boost his own stock — he must simultaneously belittle the other fellow’s.”

Where it comes from is, as usual with slang, rather unclear. But we do know that smarty by itself dates from the 1860s (it turns up as a dismissive retort in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer in 1876); the OED says this referred to a “would-be smart or witty person”. So it looks as though smarty-pants (and its British relative, smarty-boots) were elaborations on the theme, perhaps because smarty by itself was becoming shopworn.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Aug. 2005

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 6 August 2005.