Today I found out the origin of the term “Smart Alec”.
It was once thought this term was simply generic and that Alec wasn’t actually a real person. Research done by Professor Gerald Cohen in 1985, in his work “Studies of Slang Part 1″, and research done by other historians has shown, based on considerable newspaper article evidence, that “Alec” was actually very probably a real person, namely Alec Hoag.
Hoag was a pimp and a thief in New York City in the 1840s. Partnered with his wife Melinda and another known as “French Jack”, they would rob his wife’s “customers” while she otherwise distracted them.
They started out by simply having his wife lead the victims into dark alleys where, at some point, she’d pick their pockets then embrace them and hold her hand out behind them where Hoag would be hidden within arm’s reach to grab the stolen goods. Inevitably, some of these men would then go to the police to report the theft. Hoag then enlisted the help of a couple of these police officers for protection and split the stolen goods with them. Hoag’s downfall came when he ran into some financial difficulties and ended up not giving the officers their fair share.
Initially, he got away with this by operating a “panel game” con. How this worked was Melinda would bring the men back to her apartment then, “Melinda would make her victim lay his clothes, as he took them off, upon a chair at the head of the bed near the secret panel, and then take him to her arms and closely draw the curtains of the bed. As soon as everything was right and the dupe not likely to heed outside noises, Melinda would give a cough, and the faithful Alec would slyly enter, rifle the pockets of every farthing or valuable thing, and finally disappear as mysteriously as he entered.” George Wilkes, editor of the Subterranean who met Hoag in prison while Wilkes was falsely imprisoned.
Sometime after that, Alec would bang on the door and Melinda would make out that he was her husband who had returned early from some trip. The victims then would hastily grab their clothes and escape through the window.
The police soon discovered Hoag was cheating them out of their share by this new tactic and arrested Hoag and Melinda. Hoag promptly escaped from prison, with the help of his brother, but was eventually recaptured.
Alec Hoag was then given the nickname “Smart Alec” by the police for being too smart for his own good. The thought is that the police then used this term when dealing with other criminals who seemed a little too smart for their own good, often thinking of ways around giving police their payoffs: “Don’t be a Smart Alec”.
This term, as an expression, then took about 20 years to germinate and eventually found its way in print in 1865 and popular culture shortly thereafter.
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