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 far more common in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and other English-speaking countries, but Americans seldom 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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