How Smart Is the Word Smart?

Linguist Ben Yagoda likes smart for the Word of the Year. Mother Jones' Kevin Drum disagrees. Is smart smart, is it lazy ... or is it mostly just divisive? 

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Over at Lingua Franca today, Ben Yagoda has presented an early candidate for the much deliberated, hotly contested Word of the Year, and his choice is smart. Why smart? He's not talking about smart phones, nor those smart cars, he explains: "I mean smart in the sense defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as 'clever, intelligent, knowledgeable.'" As support for his word choice, he cites a whole lot of uses of the word as seen in the New York Times in just the last week. For instance, "The songs on [country singer Shane McAnally's] debut were smart and well-sung," and "Mike Hale on the new TV season: 'It's relatively high in shows that promise stylish and smart entertainment.'"

Over the years, Yagoda explains, smart has been quite the chameleon, with historical usages as verb and adjective, and with all sorts of meanings: smart as in stylish and smart as in Aleck, for instance. The use of the word to mean "intelligent" really got going in the 1800s, and by the late 1880s, "an OED citation suggests, the meaning was sufficiently widespread as not to need quotes." Yagoda likes smart for smart, not for fashion or wisecracks, in its Word of the Year form. The simplicity of smart to mean, simply, smart — "approvingly and unironically," particularly with regard to politicians, businesspeople, entertainers and entertainment —"is well suited for our times," he writes. When there is much apparent stupidity, perhaps, smart is a word worth using.

Not everyone agrees. Take Mother Jones' Kevin Drum, who believes that not only is smart not the smartest word around, but also, it undermines its own meaning. "It was becoming one of those words that gets used because it sounds sort of insidery and, um, smart without really saying much of anything," he writes. "My preference would be to stuff it in a barrel and not let it out until everyone has gotten it out of their systems. There are too many smart people in the world for it to mean much as a personal description, and when it comes to pieces of writing—well, just tell me what you liked about it. Don't just lazily tell me it was smart."

But in, say, 140 characters, can a person do that and still be smart? Perhaps it's the succinctness of the word, one that we recognize and understand without taking the time to parse it in the slightest, that makes it so wise? Still, as with any word, a glut begets a backlash. And the use of "smart take" to say, "read this; here's why" may be the smart that smarts most, in this writer's humble opinion. My advice: Be smart about smart.

Image via Shutterstock by Creativa. 

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