smart Aleck

Cohen, Gerald Leonard gcohen at UMR.EDU
Sat Dec 18 19:54:12 UTC 2004

 Douglas Wilson asks whether my suggestion that "smart Aleck" derives from 19c. pimp/thief/wiseguy Aleck Hoag is "the truth" (i.e, proven)  or "conjecture." The answer is:It's still conjecture. More specifically, I'd describe the case for Aleck Hoag being the original smart Aleck as based on good circumstantial evidence. But the final piece of the puzzle is missing, viz. a direct statement in a contemporary source linking "smart Aleck" with Aleck Hoag.

    Aleck Hoag, with the help of a prostitute, robbed male visitors to the city and then split the proceeds with the police who protected them. Hoag then dreamed up the plan of his lying on the ground just inside a cemetery wall, while his prostitute (Melinda) robbed the salacious out-of-towners by embracing them right near the cemetery, picking their pockets, and dropping the proceeds over the wall to the waiting Aleck.

   When I read this account, the thought shot through my mind that this guy was a smart Aleck. Then it occurred to me: smart Aleck, Aleck (Hoag)! and that was the trigger to all my further checking on the subject. Even though chastened by the police, Hoag soon tried to cut the police out his spoils once more--this time by becoming a panel thief. The details are too salacious for this ads-l discussion group. :)

    Hoag's operation came to the attention of the police, who were no longer in any mood to protect Hoag. His prostitute was promptly sentenced to prison, and Hoag--after his financial resources were exhausted--also was sent to prison for at least three years.

        I've surmised it was the NYC police, upset at being cut out of their just spoils, who coined the term "smart Aleck"--as a caution against other people who might try to welsh on their graft commitments by being too smart by half and thereby coming to grief.

    I compiled everything I could find about Aleck Hoag and presented it in my 1985 article. I believe I came tantalizingly close to finding the missing piece of the puzzle or at least having a chance to find it. In a June 12, 1847 _National Police Gazette_ article (p. 4, col. 3) is an article telling about how the depraved wretch Aleck Hoag might be released from prison. The succeeding issues in June, July, August, and Sept. 4 fall silent on Hoag, clearly because the efforts to free him had not yet borne fruit. Then suddenly the microfilm of the extant copies of the newspapers skips to Oct. 28, 1848, and after two issues skips up to 1866.  So the most promising source for nailing down a direct reference to Aleck Hoag being the original smart Aleck is apparently no longer obtainable.

    My article concludes:

   "Still I must take issue with the scholars who have argued to me that any number of wiseguys named Aleck could have been the original smart Aleck.  Aleck Hoag is the only one I know of who meets the criteria of being a wiseguy _par excellence_, coming to grief from being too smart by half, and having the notoriety necessary to propel his name into a standard slang item.  His greatest notoriety was with the police, who had the motivation and oppourunity to warn a considerable number of people not to be a smart Aleck.  Names that enter a language as words or parts of expressions are those only of people who are remarkable in some way.  So just any wiseguy named Aleck will not do.  We need to find a truly special one, and Aleck Hoag seems to be the only candidate on the horizon."

    Btw, the specific reference of my article is: Gerald Cohen: "Origin of smart Aleck," in: _Studies in Slang_, part 1_, (edited by Gerald Leonard Cohen; Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang), 1985, pp. 85-105.

Gerald Cohen

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