Thursday, February 26, 2015

Language of Confusion: SMRT

Today’s theme is looking at words that mean intelligent (and if you don’t get the reference in the title, tsk tsk).

Smart has two meanings, being intelligent and a pain. The latter is hardly used these days, which is ironic as it was the original meaning to the intelligent smart. It first showed up in Old English as smeortan, to be painful, coming from the Proto Germanic smarta and Proto Indo European smerd, pain. Apparently, in the early fourteenth century, people who were “cutting with words” (i.e. inflicting pain) were smart, sort of like someone who’s a smartass, and from there it morphed into quick witted and clever, and somewhere over the centuries the pain definition went into the sidelines.

Intelligent first showed up in the early sixteenth century, while intelligence showed up over a century earlier, from the Old French intelligence and classical Latin intelligentia, which of course is just intelligence. It’s the present participle of intelligere, understand, which itself is a mix of the prefix inter- (meaning “between” in this case) and legere, read (and the origin word for lecture). So…someone who’s intelligent reads between the lines?

Clever showed up in the late sixteenth century meaning handy or dexterous, which I can see as being smart. It comes from either the East Anglian (an English dialect) cliver, expert at seizing, the East Frisian (a German dialect) klüfer, skillful, or the Norwegian (please tell me you know what this one is) klover, also skillful (but more commonly cloven, as in hooves). So this is definitely another no-one-knows one.

Genius first showed up in the late fourteenth century, but like the other words here it didn’t have the meaning we know. It comes from classical Latin (the word is the impossible-to-pronounce genius) and basically meant a guardian deity, but also things like generative power and talent. It wasn’t until the mid-seventeenth century that it took on the current definition. A genius, someone born as a kind of kind of makes sense. Certainly a lot more than clever up there. Jeesh.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. I'm feeling smart just reading this!
    Actually, a smartass is still a pain in the ass.

  2. So you're saying I'm like a god?

  3. I'm leaning new words! Thanks for this post!

  4. Great info on these "smart" words.

  5. Being smart can be a pain. To yourself or to others. Depending.

  6. I love your word origin posts. I don't use the word smart without the ass attached.


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