“Smarmy,” I

A friend sent me an article published about a year ago on Business Insider called “88 very British phrases that will confuse anybody who didn’t grow up in the UK.” Not surprisingly, the title is patently untrue. While some of the words and phrases were indeed unknown to me — like “bagsy,” “pull a blinder,” budge up,” and “cack-handed” — others, such as “anorak” and “boot” (for the trunk of a car), are familiar to anyone who has watched much British television, read many British novels, or spent much time in Britain. And others have penetrated the U.S. to the extent that I’ve written posts about them for this blog: “bloody,” “bog standard,” “Bob’s your uncle,” “cheeky,” “chockablock,” and that’s only halfway through the “C”s!

What interested me most was a fourth category: words and expressions that have been common in America for as long as I can remember, and which I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of as British in origin. Eleven of these were listed: “the bee’s knees,” “(go on a) bender,” “dim” (as opposed to clever), “full of beans,” “gallivant,” “miffed,” “round (of drinks), “smarmy,” “waffle” (as in go back and forth on a decision), “wangle,” and “shambles.” [Update: As several commenters pointed out, what I have given is the American definition of “waffle.” The British one is indeed different. In the words of the Cambridge English Dictionary: “ to talk or write a lot without giving any useful information or any clear answers.”]

I tested them all–except “dim,” which was problematic because it has so many different meanings–with Google Books Ngram Viewer, which allows you, among other things, to chart the relative historical frequency of words of phrases in British and U.S. books. It turned out all of them have a long history of frequent use in America and most are currently at least as popular here as in Britain. (That’s including “shambles,” but not omnishambles.”) But three of them, in the early years of their use, were more common there than here, making them Historical NOOBs, and I’ll address all three, starting with “smarmy.”

The OED‘s principal definition of the word is “Ingratiating, obsequious; smug, unctuous,” and the first citation is from L. Brock, Deductions of Col. Gore, published in 1924: “Don’t you be taken in by that smarmy swine.” I found an earlier use in Google Books, in a poem called “The Widower” by Edward Sydney Tylee, published in The Living Age in 1905. Tylee is going for a dialect that I can’t identify:

Screen Shot 2018-10-09 at 5.20.51 PM

By the way, a secondary definition is “smooth and sleek,” with the first OED citation from a 1909 source: “A tall, slight, smarmy-headed man.” I believe I can antedate that as well, in a line from a 1903 play by Henry V. Esmond, When We Were Twenty-One:

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.21.20 AM

Back to the issue of British and American use of “smarmy,” here’s the Google Ngram chart:

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.23.58 AM

In other words, American use overtook British in the late 1970s, and by 2000 (the last year of reliable Google Ngram data) it was about 50 percent more popular in the U.S. I would imagine the margin is bigger today, what with all the smarmy people around who need to be described.

Any guesses as to the other two Historical Noobs on the Business Insider list?

34 thoughts on ““Smarmy,” I

  1. Do you have the word ‘shambolic’ too over on your side of the pond? Meaning ‘chaotic’ or ‘disorganised’?

  2. Sounds like a West Country accent (Devon/Dorset), their accent is characterised by retroflex R and by voicing unvoiced consonants initially. I read somewhere that this accent influenced how we pronounce a female fox – a vixen.

  3. I’ll wager the other two NOOBs are “wangle” and “shambles,” based on my highly scientific sampling of my (American but Anglophile) in-laws, who never used either term.

  4. ‘Smarmy’ is a great word to describe a dislikeable person using heavy ingratiation to curry favour. But a far more offensive synonym, I’d propose, is ‘oleaginous’ which
    (a) has a wonderful onomatopoetic quality and
    (b) offers one the opportunity to scarper while the recipient looks up its meaning in the nearest dictionary.

  5. I’d guess at Somerset region for the dialect – when I was growing up, we frequently heard “Zummerzet – where the zider apples grow” etc.

  6. I was in Finland, in a bar/restaurant. Two very drunk, homeless-looking men walked it, looking to get someone to buy them a drink.

    We were sat down at a booth and pretty much the only people on there. They walked over and quickly ascertained that we were British. One switched to English and introduced himself and his friend. Then he stopped talking for about 5 seconds, as he tried to find the right words,

    “Budge up”.

    We did, seemed like it was a decent return for the effort. Got quickly evicted by a waiter

    1. I’ve never noticed “budge up” before (but I’ve not read Harry Potter). There’s quite a few expressions on there that I’ve never heard, or have only heard on TV/radio. There are also expressions on there that are common in NZ and Australia and other countries – not just the UK, The title “88 very British phrases that will confuse anybody who didn’t grow up in the UK.” is a bit misleading as many of them will be understood by people who grew up in contries other than the US and some others will only be understood by some people in the UK (not all). For example, I heard a Zimbabwean polition calling their recent election a “dogs breakfast”.

  7. Ben, you write
    ‘…“waffle” (as in go back and forth on a decision)…’
    I have never encountered that usage in the UK. I am only aware of ‘waffle’ (when a verb) meaning to fail to get to the point in speech or writing and to pad ones message with superfluous words.
    ‘What are you waffling on about?’
    Or as a noun ‘It’s two pages of waffle.’

    1. I see that Chambers dictionary does have a second meaning of to waffle as to waver or to vacillate, but I can’t recall ever hearing it used that way.(It also gives a dialect meaning, to wave, frequentative of to waff.)

      1. That sounds like the times when somebody at a meeting talks a lot without actually saying what they had decided (because they hadn’t actually decided anything).

    2. Second cartoon on this page has the US version of waffle (which I had never heard of before, being Ukian) well illustrated. https://godaddyandthesquirrelmustbothdie.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/saturday-morning-oy-october-13-2018/

      The site is “Comics I Don’t Understand”, primarily for cartoons and strips as the title describes and with an invitation to visitors to explain them. But the site owner also puts in “Oy” (groaner) jokes (of which this is one) and “Eww” (scatalogical) jokes, and a Sunday roundup of things that make him laugh as well, all of which he does understand.

    3. And this explains a sentence in the American book I’m currently reading where a man has a girl friend who was a Communist in the 1920s: “Eventually he became a member too, though he waffled as time wet on.” If I hadn’t read these posts, I’d have been wondering what that meant.

  8. “Round of drinks” is the only way I can think of to describe what it is. 100% American. Bender, waffle and shambles also very American. (Alistair Savage: you would only hear “shambolic” from someone doing an Austin Powers impression.) I think you’d wrangle your way into a party, not wangle. Nobody here says “bloody” but you would need to have never heard a Brit speak ever in your life not to understand.

  9. West Country speech has been written that way for many centuries (and not just leading ‘s’, either).

    For an example from 1614, look at the latter sections of the secular song/madrigal cycle by Thomas Ravenscroft with the incredibly long-winded title:

    ‘A briefe discourse Of the true (but neglected) use of Charact’ring the Degrees by their Perfection perfection, imperfection, and diminution in measurable musicke, against the common practise and custome of these times Examples whereof are exprest in the harmony of 4. voyces, concerning the pleasure of 5. vsuall recreations. 1 Hunting, 2 hawking, 3 dauncing, 4 drinking, 5 enamouring’

    It’s far more fun than it sounds.  (Full score at CPDL: http://www0.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/A_Brief_Discourse_(Thomas_Ravenscroft) )

    For example, one piece starts: “Coame Malkyn, hurle thine oyz at Hodge Trillindle | And zet a zide thy Distaue and thy Zpindle” (which I think roughly translates as “put down your spinning and look at me”).

  10. Cack-handed is one which is close to me. It seems to have originally meant left-handed, and as a left-hander myself it’s something I’m familiar with. My mother was always calling me cack-handed whenever I was trying to use a utensil. Left-handed is the first definition for cack-handed in Chambers dictionary. It supposedly derives from the left hand being the hand you wipe your arse with.

    My headmaster at primary school in the north of England however called me cuddie-fisted. A cuddie is a northern dialect word for a horse or donkey and he said it was to do with which hand you held the reins in.

    I agree with the comments about “waffle”. It’s saying a lot without actually saying anything.

  11. Ah, it’s all about the hair – ‘smarmy-headed’ and ‘if everybody’s hair isn’t smarmy’: smarm is from smalm, a colloquial word meaning to smear the hair with pomade; hence smarmy, smooth and sleek.

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