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What Does 'Smarmy' Mean?

"Smarmy" is related to oiliness.

By
Ben Yagoda, Writing for
3-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

It's rare to know the exact origin or a word, but "smarmy" was a winner in an 1899 contest of original familect words in a London journal.

"Smarmy" is a useful word, as anyone who has had to listen to an oleaginous colleague drone on in a business meeting can attest. Unlike most useful words, its origin can be traced to a particular person — who invented it as a joke.

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s principal definition for "smarmy" 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. 

The word is widely used today, with more than 42,000 hits on Google News. A recent "New York Times" theater review says a Munich production of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" turned "it into a Midsummer Nightmare, with a smarmy, sadistic Puck who gets his kicks by knocking Athenian lovers unconscious with his spells."

Looking to antedate the OED, as I do, I found a 1905 use of the word in the Google Books database: a poem called "The Widower" by Edward Sydney Tylee, published in "The Living Age." Tylee is going for an English West Country accent (sometimes referred to as Mummerset):

Vaine marnin, zir, the volk do cry. And grip my hand wi' smarmy smiles.

Moments after I proudly tweeted out my find, Jonathon Green, editor of "Green’s Dictionary of Slang," responded with a bit of skepticism: "Looking at other bits of [the] poem allowed by Google Books I’m certain it is a positive sense and not the current one. All simple rustic good fellowship, none of implications of modern 'smarmy.'"

On reflection, I took his point, although I couldn’t find such a good-fellowship meaning in any reference work or in any other text. The other recognized meaning of “smarmy“ derives from the verb "smarm" (sometimes spelled "smalm" or "smawm"), defined by the OED as "smear, bedaub" and first cited by the dictionary in an 1847 work, A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial WordsThe OED has a secondary definition of "smarmy" as "smooth and sleek," with the first citation from a 1909 source: "A tall, slight, smarmy-headed man." As that suggests, the "smear" meaning became associated with the stuff one smears on one’s hair. A little quality time on Google Books gave me an even earlier date, from a 1903 play by Henry V. Esmond, "When We Were Twenty-One":

You musn't ruffle my hair, you know, coz the soldier-man's coming to lunch, and if everyone's hair isn't smarmy, he loses his appetite.

It makes sense that "unctuous-smarmy," with its sense of behavioral greasiness, would have emerged from the hair sense of the word. And a short time after our initial Twitter exchange, Jonathon Green posted a true antedate for the current meaning, from a 1916 edition of an Australian newspaper, the "Barrier Miner," in 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.

I kept looking and eventually came upon an even earlier use of the 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:

Using Google Books, I found an article about the results of the competition, including this list of some of the best responses:

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.

I hope that doesn’t sound smarmy.

About the Author

Ben Yagoda, Writing for Grammar Girl

Ben Yagoda is the author of How to Not Write BadAbout Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, and many other books. You can find out more about him at benyagoda.com and on Twitter.