"Smart Alec" in NY TIMES ignores Cohen

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Sun Dec 1 18:43:58 UTC 2002

   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


    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.

2) In reply to Fred's question, _Comments on Etymology_ has a
subscription list of about 75. The number is small but includes
lexicographers and various leading scholars (plus many educated
laymen).  Fred is correct in forgiving the NY Times reporters for not
being familiar with Comments on Etymology. Btw, one reason the
subscription number is low is that I've never aggressively publicized
the publication. I'm happy to share the material with anyone
interested, but an increased subscription list would entail both
increased expense and work (To keep the subscription price
reasonable, Com. on Et. is published below its actual
printing/mailing costs.)

Gerald Cohen

P.S.  Alan Metcalf has urged me to prepare an index of Comments on
Etymology. I should really do this plus an index of my formally
published material.  The only thing delaying these projects is time
(in short supply).

>At 7:53 AM -0500 12/1/02, Fred Shapiro wrote:
>On Sun, 1 Dec 2002 Bapopik at AOL.COM wrote:
>>     Gerald Cohen wrote about this in COMMENTS ON ETYMOLOGY.  "Smart alec" is
>>  discussed in the FYI section of Sunday's NEW YORK TIMES, but Cohen gets no
>>  credit!  BREWER'S is cited, but Adrian Room--who edited the new edition of
>>  BREWER'S--is likely to have relied on Gerald Cohen's work.  From FYI in the
>>  CITY section of today's NEW YORK TIMES:
>Barry, what exactly is the circulation of Comments on Etymology, such that
>every reporter is expected to have read and remembered every article in
>Fred Shapiro

At 2:00 AM -0500 12/1/02, Bapopik at AOL.COM wrote:
>    From Jonathon Green's CASSELL DICTIONARY OF SLANG:
>_smart alec/aleck_ n. (mid 19C+)(orig. US) an unpleasantly conceited, smug
>person (cf. ALEC; CLEVER DICK). (proper name _Alec_ Hoag, a celebrated New
>York City thief of 1840s, who, with his wife Melinda and his accomplice
>French Jack, specialized in the PANEL GAME; for a detailed account of Hoag
>and his carrer, _see_ Cohen (1985)).
>    Gerald Cohen wrote about this in COMMENTS ON ETYMOLOGY.  "Smart alec" is
>discussed in the FYI section of Sunday's NEW YORK TIMES, but Cohen gets no
>credit!  BREWER'S is cited, but Adrian Room--who edited the new edition of
>BREWER'S--is likely to have relied on Gerald Cohen's work.  From FYI in the
>CITY section of today's NEW YORK TIMES:
>'Smart' Alec's Cons
>Q. Is it true that the term "smart alec" was coined in New York?
>A. Yes. According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (HarperCollins,
>2000), "Smart Alec" was a real person, Alec Hoag, who lived in New York in
>the mid-19th century, although his noted intelligence was mostly focused on
>breaking the law.
>Hoag was a well-known thief, pimp and confidence man who made his scores in
>New York in the 1840's.
>Along with his wife, Melinda, and an accomplice known as French Jack, he
>operated a con called "The Panel Game" in which a prostitute lured a customer
>to a room. An accomplice would then create a commotion outside the room,
>prompting the mark to block the door with a table or chair. Under the
>illusion of safety, the victim would fall asleep, at which point Hoag would
>sneak in the room through sliding panels on the wall and would relieve the
>sleeping mark of his remaining money and valuables.
>Hoag generated a reputation for the ability to escape detection from both his
>victims and the authorities, earning him the nickname Smart Alec. The term
>was eventually applied to any conceited know-it-all.

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