SMART ALECK, SMART-ALEC

No viable theories have come forth on why smart aleck developed at the beginning of the last century. But it did, and the expression is still very much with us today. By smart aleck we mean a bumptious, conceited know-it-all. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says it is an American term that goes back to the 1860s and that it can be found in the literature of this country. The expression first appeared in print in 1862 in a Carson City, Nevada, newspaper. But no record remains of Aleck’s identity. Some sources say that the term was first used in the sixteenth century to designate a questionable scholar named Alexander Ross, who possesed various tiresome qualities. (Ross was referred to by Samuel Butler in Hudibras [1663-1678]: «There was a very learn’d philosopher / Who had read Alexander Ross over». But this belief has not been attested. Whoever the original Aleck, once a common nickname for Alexander, he was smart enough to cover up all leads to his identity.