That smarts!

The death of Pentheus

The death of Pentheus, published 1494. Agave, with her sisters Auntonoe and Ino, murders her son Pentheus on Mt. Cithaeron after he disturbs their Bacchic rites.


How apt that the tool most commonly used by millions of smart-asses to leave millions of smart-alecky comments on social media is called a smartphone.

The unambiguous use of the word “smart” to mean “intelligent” is rather recent.

The word “smart” actually has its roots in the Old English “smeart“, which finds its source in various Germanic words related to pain or cutting – see the Middle Dutch “smerte” or modern German “schmerz“.  All of these words go even further back to words once meaning “to bite”.

By the time of Chaucer, English speakers had already made the leap from the original meaning of “smart” to a more figurative use of the word.

To be “smart” in the 1300s meant someone was witty to the point of rudeness – in other words, a “smart” comment was a biting or cutting remark.

Fast forward 300 years, and by the time of Shakespeare and Jamestown, “smart” had completed its journey to its more or less present meaning of “clever” or “intelligent”.

Of course, the older meaning of “smart” lives on in terms like “smart-ass” and “smarty-pants”.

The rural places of post-war America were still acutely attuned to the older sense of the word.  Plain language was the preferred idiom, and anyone venturing into “wordiness” outside song or poetry was liable to come under suspicion of “trying to be smart”.

Although it seems to be dying-out now, rural America of the 1960s and 1970s still used the word “smart” even in some of its older senses.

To get something done quickly was to be “right smart about it”.

A stubbed toe, or a finger pricked while sewing, was likely to elicit an involuntary “Damn! That smarts!”.

It would be interesting to hear how widespread this old usage might be – to see if it is an Elizabethan hangover, or a word revived by widespread German immigration.



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