Language
Fact-checked

At LanguageHumanities, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.

Learn more...

What is a Smart Aleck?

A Smart Aleck is someone who often makes sarcastic or witty remarks, typically with a sense of superiority. While they may seem clever, their comments can sometimes be irritating or offensive. It's a fine line between being amusing and disrespectful. Have you ever encountered a Smart Aleck, and how did it make you feel? Share your experiences with us.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A smart aleck, sometimes spelled smart alec, is someone who is self-assured to the point of impudence. The term is usually used to describe someone who is being annoying or self-righteous, and sometimes implies that someone is too smart for their own good. Another common term for the same sort of person is “wise guy,” with both terms adding a slightly ironic inflection to generally good things like being smart and wise.

Many people wonder if there was an original Aleck for whom the phrase is named, and the answer is yes. As so rarely happens with slang terms, the history of “smart aleck” is actually relatively easy to trace, thanks to the efforts of multiple historians who were curious about the original aleck as well. Their search for the first smart aleck was aided by well-kept records, which tracked the first Aleck back to the 1800s.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

The first Aleck was Aleck Hoag, a confidence man in New York City who appears to have operated in the 1840s. Aleck was a pimp, and he used the activities of his women to reap additional income through a scheme called the “panel game.” Aleck would wait until the customer was asleep or otherwise occupied, and then he would sneak into the room to steal the customer's wallet and valuables. Patrons got wise to this scheme, and they started blocking doors with chairs and tables. In response, Hoag built false wall panels which slid aside so that he could enter the room without entering the door.

This particular smart aleck qualifies as a wise guy for several reasons. He clearly evaded capture for long enough to develop quite an elaborate system for relieving people of their money and valuables. He also openly boasted about the panel scheme, demonstrating it for curious visitors. Furthermore, Hoag also attempted to avoid paying the police their cut, and “smart aleck” may have actually originated in the constabulary. It didn't take long for Hoag to become well known, and “smart aleck” was a common term in 1860s slang.

As a general rule, “smart aleck” is not a complimentary term. A smart aleck tends to be bold and rather cocky about it, and these traits tend to be frowned upon by many societies. The term may be used pejoratively, in the hopes of encouraging someone to reform, or it may be used in reference to someone who is essentially incorrigible, as a warning to people who might deal with that person.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a LanguageHumanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a LanguageHumanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

You might also Like

Discussion Comments

Cruze

I have a teenage son who I just might rename Aleck! I guess it’s just a teenage thing but he drives me crazy. Everything that comes out of his mouth is a smart aleck comment. Does anyone know when I can expect him to outgrow this? It’s just rude.

otatop

My husband is the king of smart aleck quotes. His favorites are, "I'm not selfish, I just like things my way." and "I'm not late, everyone else is just early." I married him so I have to tolerate his quips, but he's definitely annoyed more than a few people by sounding cocky, especially at work. I guess not everyone appreciates that sort of sarcasm.

Post your comments
Login:
Forgot password?
Register:
    • Man with hands on his hips
      Man with hands on his hips