Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sat Dec 18 13:51:21 UTC 2004

 From Michael Quinion's "World Wide Words", latest issue:


Q. Who was smart Alec? ....

A. For many years, Smart Alec or Smart Aleck was thought to be no
more than a generic character, first cousin to Clever Dick. For the
truth, we are indebted to Professor Gerald Cohen, who has traced
him to a real person (for the full story, see G L Cohen, Studies in
Slang, Part 1, 1985). The original was Alex Hoag, a celebrated
thief in New York in the 1840s.


A similar explanation is given in Quinion's new book.

I don't have immediate access to Gerald Cohen's 1985 book.

I note that this etymology is called (not just "a convincing theory" or so
but) "the truth". I suppose that this would tend to indicate that there is
very strong textual evidence. But I seem to recall somebody saying that
there was [as yet] no decisive textual confirmation of this origin.

Perhaps Gerald Cohen can give us the latest word?

I had no trouble verifying the existence and transient notoriety of
Alexander Hoag when I looked into this a while back, but I was unable to
verify a connection with "smart-aleck" which began to be popular some years

Is the Alexander Hoag etymology supported by solid citations, or is it
[still] conjectural?

-- Doug Wilson

More information about the Ads-l mailing list