The Birth of Smarmy.

Ben Yagoda has a Lingua Franca piece on the history of that useful word smarmy; he begins with definition (OED: “Ingratiating, obsequious; smug, unctuous”) and continues with the all-important matter of dating. He and the great Jonathon Green have a back-and-forth about it, with Green finding an antedate from a 1916 edition of the Barrier Miner (New South Wales): “I wonder what his game is […] He doesn’t look the sort she could make a friend of; too smarmy for my taste.” Then Yagoda hits the jackpot:

I kept looking and eventually came upon an even earlier use of modern smarmy. As I said up top, it was a joke. A London journal called The Academy ran “Literary Competitions” in each issue, much as New York magazine and The Washington Post have done in later years. Here are the rules for No. 14 [“the best list of four original words, with definitions attached”]. Using Google Books, I found an article about the results of the competition, including this list of some of the best responses [one of which is “Smarmy: Saying treacly things which do not sound genuine”].

After I sent that out over Twitter, the language maven Ben Zimmer located the original article from the January 14, 1899, issue of The Academy announcing the winner of the competition. It revealed that one B.R.L., of Brighton, had come up with the idea that a word for “saying treacly things which do not sound genuine” should be smarmy.

The Internet is full of articles about notable neologisms, such as witticism, coined by John Dryden, and serendipity, invented by Horace Walpole. But none of them includes smarmy, and the very fact that B.R.L.’s humorous definition in a literary contest should eventually have become widely adopted — even as screel, scrungle, and gluxy disappeared — I find amazing.

So do I; it’s a pity that we don’t know B.R.L.’s full name — he or she deserves credit for their brilliant creation.


  1. The rules request family pet words [“most families have a few pet words, of home made manufacture”] so “smarmy” might have been coined not by B.R.L. but by his sister S.G.L. or mother M. B.-L.

  2. True, but let’s not get too picky — Dryden and Walpole might have swiped their “coinages” from friends or family members too. Attribution determines who gets prizes.

  3. For that matter, family “pet words” are often dialectal words brought by some parent or grandparent from a community where they were standard to one where they’re unknown, so that the children grow up knowing them as family-only. So B.R.L. may bear the laurel for now, but it doesn’t rule out finding an antedate from elsewhere!

  4. I used to love reading the Competition in the New Statesman in the late 1970s. The Spectator also has one but it’s not my cup of tea (the mag. not the comp)
    WRITING a parody is hard
    . In the 1940s, a competition in the New Statesman invited readers to parody Graham Greene. Greene himself entered under a pseudonym and only came second.
    There was someone called Basil Ransome-Davies who nearly always won it and a couple of years ago I tracked him down at – of all places – Facebook (I think he was a friend of someone, perhaps Francis Wheen).

  5. John Cowan says

    This is all very well and good, but the OED lists smarm, smaam, smalm, smawm (presumably just different transcriptions) as a dialect verb meaning ‘smear, bedaub’, with a first citation in 1847 to a dictionary of “archaic and provincial words”. Which suggests that smarmy is just ordinary productive deverbal -y applied to a known, if dialectal, verb. The OED does not venture an etymology for smarm v., however. There is also a noun smarm, not recorded before 1937 and quite possibly a back-formation from smarmy.

  6. Huh. Well, B.R.L. still gets the medal, but we may have to cut back on the prize money.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    For stay-at-homes, a good learn-by-reading example of a smarmy character is Obadiah Slope in Barchester Towers. “Smarmy” is more polite than “slimy” or “smegmous”.

    To test your vocab mojo, take instances of the formula “Saying [adj] things which do not sound genuine” in which [adj] has been replaced by an actual [adj], and find an [adj] with that meaning if there is one. For example, I find that “hateful” means “saying hateful things which do not sound genuine”.

  8. My wife and I are currently rereading Barchester Towers, as it happens, and what a marvelous character Slope is! (Unforgettably played by the young Alan Rickman in the BBC version.)

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