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Verbal Energy

The unbearable smartness of being

The Monitor's language columnist feels the lexical ground shifting on just what 'smartly' means.

By Ruth Walker / November 1, 2012



As I was discussing logistics with relatives en route to Boston for a visit, the question arose how we would all get around together on the "T," as the mass transit system here is known.

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Queuing up to buy individual tickets would chew up precious time. It occurred to me that I could just charge up my Charlie Card, part of what the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority calls its "reusable and rechargeable ticketing system," and have us all ride on that. "We can all travel on my smart card."

Smart has come into its own to describe gizmos that have orders-of-magnitude greater functionality than their not-so-smart predecessors.

The Online Etymology Dictionary explains that the use of smart to refer to devices "behaving as though guided by intelligence" dates to 1972. There were "smart bombs" long before smart phones – back when phones were bolted to the wall in your house but owned by the phone company.

Here's the scoop on smart: As an adjective, it goes back to a late Old English word, smeart, which meant "sharp, severe, stinging," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Baby boomers may remember that whenever Snagglepuss, Hanna-Barbera's pink cartoon tiger, would take a whack from one of his adversaries, his characteristic response was "That smarts!"

By 1300 smart, as an adjective, had come to mean "quick, active, or clever." This probably comes from the notion of "cutting" wit, words, etc., the etymology dictionary speculates. By the early 1700s, smart meant "fashionably dressed."

Smart in all its forms has been all over the lot ever since. As an adjective, it's perhaps the most common word used to describe someone as "intelligent." But smart retains a colloquial tone ("He's a smart guy; he'll figure it out") that makes it out of place in some contexts. Smart also has an overtone of self-interest ("smart lawyers"), and even disrespect: "smart attitude."

The Macmillan Dictionary notes, "A smart movement is quick and full of energy," as in "a smart rap across the knuckles," or "moving the ball smartly down the field."

The adverbial smartly has generally lined up with these concepts of "smartness," to the point where I as an editor would challenge its use as a synonym for "intelligently."

But I can feel the lexical ground shifting. During his second debate with Mitt Romney, President Obama said, "[I]f we're going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals...."

And here's the headline on a New York Times essay on science policy: "With Limited Budgets, Pursuing Science Smartly."

The "traditional" sense of "smartly" is still alive and well on Google News: "Kentucky Lottery sales jump smartly in July and August," for instance.

But so are other senses of the word, perhaps influenced by the technological "smart," as when Venture Beat reported, "Kliq shares your content smartly across all your social networks."

A headline reading "West Michigan business leaders smartly veer from Right to Work priority" confused me. Did "smartly" refer to the speed of the veering? Or express the writer's approval of the move?

It's the latter, I concluded after reading the piece. And the adverb I would have suggested is wisely. We have "smarts," and even intelligence, in abundance. But wisdom is always in short supply.

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