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SMARMY

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SMARMY

Postby Dr. Goodword » Wed Apr 18, 2012 7:02 am

• smarmy •

Pronunciation: smah(r)-mi • Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: 1. Slicked down, greasy, said especially of hair with too much tonic or oil on it. 2. Unctuous, oily, obsequious, ingratiatingly polite, perhaps with an overlay of feigned intelligence or sophistication.

Notes: Today's Good Word is one that has yet to make it to America. It is widely used in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and other English-speaking countries but Americans never hear or use it. It may be compared: smarmier, smarmiest, and its root may be used as a qualitative noun, smarm, the quality that makes something smarmy. If you prefer something a bit longer, try smarminess for the noun. I'm sure you won't regret it.

In Play: Have you ever wanted a term that would help you avoid brown-nosing, a far too common expression in the US? Here is how you do it: "Mel Pew always puts on that smarmy charm of his when a customer comes by." Of course, smarminess could conjure up admiration, too: "I don't see how she does it, but Celia Feight can use one of her smarmy sales pitches and sell ice cubes to an Eskimo."

Word History: Today's word is the adjective from the verb smarm "to slick down, to make smooth with an oily substance". No one has any idea where the verb came from though its meaning and spelling strongly suggest a kinship with smear. It probably originated in a dialectal pronunciation of this word or perhaps as a blend of smear and some other word, maybe balm. This is, however, only speculation. (Today we thank the decidedly unsmarmy Jeremy Busch for suggesting words of mysterious origins that, equally mysteriously, have not penetrated the [more or less] United States.)
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Postby Perry Lassiter » Wed Apr 18, 2012 11:59 am

I was not aware of the physical meaning of smarmy, though I certainly knew the second meaning. Maybe because I'm a mystery fan, I've read many British books and just realized I've probably not heard it spoken. Would "unctuous" be synonymous?
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Postby LukeJavan8 » Wed Apr 18, 2012 12:28 pm

Unctuous seems a little higher class to me.
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Postby call_copse » Thu Apr 19, 2012 7:30 am

Well, as unctuous has been used in the definition I think there is at least a decent degree of overlap. I'd see smarmy as a little more pejorative, unctuous (as a personal adjective) could be just referring to someone who is acting the peacemaker, whereas smarmy is definitely an indication of a certain weaseliness (sorry if that's not actually a word).

Good word anyway.
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BOSTON, a home for the word and the embodiement of smarmy

Postby eberntson » Thu Apr 19, 2012 10:14 am

I need to say the "smarmy" is commonly used in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the surrounding area. We are home to colonies of "smarmy" politicians, sales guys, and other trades that this attribute is not necessarily a negative. (My skin is already crawling just thinking about some of my encounters wid' dee' guyz.)
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Postby Philip Hudson » Thu Apr 19, 2012 10:37 am

call_copse: I agree that smarmy seems slimy. I plan never to use it. But unctuous, to me, is even worse. Merriam-Webster gives unctuous the non-literal definition of "revealing or marked by a smug, ingratiating, and false earnestness or spirituality". I have always heard it used in that sense. Think of someone who is so "spiritual" that holy oil seems to flow from her/his fingertips and whose hair is replete with sickly sweet-smelling oil. He/she is doubtlessly holier than thou and wants you to know it. Please forgive my candor, but it puts me in mind of some, but not all, television evangelists. I have heard people say that they have the unction of the Holy Spirit. It always seemed fake to me. In the Catholic Church, extreme unction is one of the sacraments. It is putting some oil on the head of someone about to die as a sign of God's forgivenes of the individual's sins. I have no quarrel with unction in this sense. We could all use a lot of that.
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Postby call_copse » Thu Apr 19, 2012 11:33 am

I would agree that unctuous might more commonly be a compliment to a body lotion or a bit of pate de foie gras, but I think you also use it positively for someone who successfully smoothes over interpersonal issues at work say. This would be from one who 'pours oil on troubled waters'.

In the usage I know smarmy is always negative, as in Jerry Falwell / Pat Robertson or other self-serving preacher or politician. If a salesman say was able to win me round I'd probably go for something like charming - it's not happened yet but I can talk hypothetically can't I? :D
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Smarmy

Postby MelodyL » Thu Apr 19, 2012 6:54 pm

I find this interesting. I distinctly remember the first time I heard the word "smarmy" in conversation. It was used by my college boyfriend, a brilliant writer who went on to accomplish great things. I had never heard the word before and I remember that I asked him about it. I incorporated it into my own vocabulary and have been using it, fairly regularly and not ever in reference to hair, for the past - oh my God! - has it been THAT long since I've been in college? By the way, I went to college in NY and my then-boyfriend was a resident of NYC. I was surprised to read that the word is not popular stateside. It's an integral part of my vocabulary, my husband's and my children's. I cannot even imagine what an election year would be like without the word smarmy.
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Postby Perry Lassiter » Thu Apr 19, 2012 8:53 pm

Melody reads like a pretty good writer herself. Welcome to the forum, and keep posting - got a hunch you could contribute a bunch!
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Postby LukeJavan8 » Thu Apr 19, 2012 9:02 pm

Welcome, Melody.
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Postby Philip Hudson » Fri Apr 20, 2012 12:30 am

Welcome to the forum Melody. Thanks for the post. Write often.

I am interested in all experiences with words. I teach English as a Second Language. I never heard the word smarmy until the Good Doctor introduced the word. I am still at a loss for how to use it, or if I want to use it. I have used the word unctuous for many years and it has served me well. I might try smarmy on for size, but I live in the midst of red necks and am not sure of the reception it will get. "There goes Hudson." they will say, "pulling one of those new fangled words on us again."

But that is my problem. You enter into the fray as you like. Here you will receive respect and, I hope, enjoyment. Hope for enlightenment, but it is not guaranteed.
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Postby Perry Lassiter » Fri Apr 20, 2012 11:50 am

It just occurred to me that smarmy may be less used today because fewer men use greasy kid stuff on their hair.
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Postby LukeJavan8 » Fri Apr 20, 2012 12:18 pm

Ah, Brylcreem! ! !
A little dab will do ya!

I'd try using the word in your ESL classes and see
what happens. Anything for fun and experimentation.
I use words I learn here, and just stare back when
people roll their eyes at me.
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Postby Perry Lassiter » Fri Apr 20, 2012 1:55 pm

When people rolled their eyes at a word, my best friend in college would grin and ask, " What's the matter? Are you antisusquepedalian?"
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Postby LukeJavan8 » Fri Apr 20, 2012 8:00 pm

Heh, heh. Good.
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