smart aleck

A smart Aleck is a know-it-all. It is American slang dating to the mid-1860s. Aleck or Alec is clearly a reference to a person, but who the original Aleck or Alec was is a mystery that has been lost to the ages. From the Carson Appeal (Nevada) of 17 October 1865:

Halloa, old smart Aleck—how is the complimentary vote for Ashley?

Some have suggested that the term derives from a character, Dr. Smart-Allick, created by British humorist J.B. Morton. This is not the case as the term was well-established before Morton was even born—so Morton’s character took his name from the term, not vice versa.

The a possible origin has been suggested by Gerald Cohen in a 1985 article in Studies In Slang. Cohen tentatively traces the origin to an 1840s New York City confidence man named Aleck Hoag. Hoag and his wife Melinda operated several confidence games where Melinda would pose as a prostitute and Aleck would rob the johns of their valuables. Hoag escaped arrest by paying off the police. He eventually tried to cut the police out of the scheme and the pair was arrested. Cohen hypothesizes that it was police who dubbed him “Smart Aleck,” because he was too clever by half. This is a tantalizing possibility, but definitive proof is lacking.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Studies in Slang, Part 1)

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