More on “Clever”

To bring you up to date: my sense is that the British use clever the way Americans use smart or intelligent or bright. The traditional American clever is a more limited honorific; it seems to be implicity preceded by the word merely and suggests a facility with puns or puzzles.

But things are changing. The latest indication that clever is reaching NOOB status is this line from a David Sedaris interview in today’s New York Times:

“I was a judge for this year’s Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, so until very recently I was reading essays written by clever high school students.”

Mark my words, it’s a comer.

29 thoughts on “More on “Clever”

  1. I don’t use “clever” as a synonym for “intelligence,” although a certain degree of intelligence is a given. Rather, I reserve my use of “clever” for when there’s a bit of slyness involved, even sometimes to the point of shiftiness.
    [Note: I had to use quotes herein because of WordPress’ inability to allow even the most basic text formatting (e.g., italics) in posting replies.]

  2. Sedaris lives part of the year in England now, so it makes sense that he would be an agent for the introduciont of NOOBs like “clever.” I don’t notice a ton of Britishisms in his writing, though.

  3. I use “clever” as something of a synonym for “ingenious,” without the overtones of sly or shifty (I speak AmerEng). If I say that an idea is clever, it’s a compliment.

      1. Well that site was a surprise to me. The term being used by a charity to promote ‘safe sex’ among homosexuals.
        I’m born here, English, 79 years old, male and grew up and have lived with the term ‘clever dick’ being used to describe someone “too clever by half”, a smug individual, a know-all, as a perjorative description.
        I’d always imagined that it was derived from the ‘private dick’ expression, referring to hard-boiled private detectives of the Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, authored variety, and therefore of American origin. Not so, it appears.
        Thank you for an interesting site. As you probably guessed, I’m new here.

      2. Here’s another WordPress “deficiency”. This reply is to mjy1’s reply to mine, but WordPress’ nesting apparently stops at the second level.
        It would be interesting [Ben, are you listening?] to know if “private dick” is a NOOB or not. The term is used here in the U.S.A., but not, in my experience, as often as “private eye”.

      3. Immediate afterthought: Does the term “private dick” arise after the introduction of the cartoon strip about bona fide detective, “Dick Tracy”?
        According to Wikipedia:
        – Dick Tracy debuted October 4, 1931, in the Detroit Mirror
        – Dashiell Hammett was first published in 1923, but a Google search reveals no writings wherein he used the term
        – Raymond Chandler was first published in 1933, and he used the term liberally in many of his novels, including his first, The Big Sleep (1939).
        Such references as those above do not answer the question, but merely suggest that the term was not popular in Hammett’s day, but was by Chandler’s.
        In searching Google Books for early examples, one must sort out Dicks, both given- and surnames, who held the rank of Private in military service.
        The first potential reference I found for “private dick” as a reference for a private investigator was to “private dick dodgers” in “The Gay-cat – The Story of a Road-kid and His Dog,” (1914), p. 211. I say, “potential” because the novel is written in a vernacular of the day, and one can’t be sure; but the likelihood is high, since the paragraph also speaks of “gittin’ vagged” (i.e., arrested for vagrancy).
        The first non-fiction reference I found was on p. 270 of the proceedings of the 48th AFL convention in 1928, in the title of a news item: PRIVATE “DICK” CAUGHT (i.e., with DICK in quotes, suggesting that the use of “dick” for “investigator” may have been in the vernacular somewhat broadly, but that it had not yet gained wide acceptance as part of the language).
        Such reticence seems to have been overcome in print in the U.S. early in the 1930s, by which time we find the term being used liberally in both fiction and non-fiction. (References are too numerous to be cited here.)
        From Google’s Ngram Viewer, this appears to be another term the Yanks brought to the U.K. in WW II.
        In short, “private dick” was almost certainly not invented by Chester Gould, creator of Dick Tracy, but given the chronology, he may have been one to popularize it.
        The basic investigation, however, remains: how did “dick” became a synonym for “investigator” in the first place?

      4. “Clever Dick”, “too clever by half”
        Also “clever-clever”.

      5. W.C. Fields was the “bank dick” in the film of that name.

  4. The OED says that since 1553, “Dick” has been used “generically (like Jack) = fellow, lad, man, especially with alliterating adjectives, as desperate, dainty, dapper, dirty.” J. Gault in “Sir Andrew Wylie” (1822) writes a line that sounds as if it could come from the pen of Hammett: “He’s a gone dick—a dead man.” “Clever Dick” first appears in J.B. Priestley’s “Wonder Hero” (1933). Meanwhile, “private dick,” meaning “private detective” is described as “orig. and chiefly U.S.” The first citation is A. H. Lewis, “Apaches of N.Y.” (1912): “But w’at wit’ th’ stores full of private dicks a booster can’t do much.”

    1. Thanks. We were investigating in “different schools together,” because unlike you, I have no access to the OED.

  5. I think the American use of ‘clever’ matches the British one when referring to people, e.g., ‘a clever child’, but not when it refers to things, e.g., ‘a clever pun’. The latter case is the ‘limited’ one you describe in your post. Just a thought!

  6. In England our Skoda garage (“We put passion into all our cars) displays various posters lauding their wares, each of which has in the corner the motto “simply clever”.
    From LBS, working for you to keep our language healthy.

  7. Clever doesn’t necessarily equate directly to intelligent or smart as it can be used for someone who is just cunning or sly as well as ‘clever dick’ which is usually intended contemptuously for someone who is far too pleased with themselves for getting something right.

    Being Brits we can also use it ironically to mock someone who is not clever at all – rather as particularly tall people get nicknamed ‘tiny’ – with Ian Dury’s song Clever Trevor being a good example:

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