• wiseacre •
waiz-ay-kêr • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A smarty-pants, an upstart know-it-all, especially one who makes insolent conceited wisecracks all the time.
Notes: Wiseacre is an oddball word that should have been orphaned long ago. Wags, however, have tried to derive at least two adjectives, wiseacred and wiseacreish, and several peculiar nouns, including wiseacredness, wiseacreishness, wiseacredom, and wiseacrery. (I don't mind the last one so long as I don't have to pronounce it.) Should we include wisecrack in this lexical rogue's gallery? Wisecracks are what wiseacres make and what make wiseacres, so there is a semantic connection paralleling the sarcastic role of wise in both words.
In Play: Wiseacres most often turn out to be practical jokers with a twisted sense of humor: "While I was giving my presentation, some wiseacre across the table kept nodding toward my fly, making me think it was open when it wasn't; still, I blushed and sat down to finish." We also use this word to refer to people with superficial or fake knowledge: "I'm thinking that my therapist is a wiseacre who got her knowledge of people from television talk shows."
Word History: Back in the 1590s, when soothsayers were more common, English borrowed the Middle Dutch word wijssegger "soothsayer, seer, fortune-teller" without any pejorative connotation. Dutch wijs came from an Old Germanic wizzan "to know", whose root turned into wit, witness, and wise in English. Now, you might wonder what twits have to do with wisdom. Well, the word twit came from the now obsolete twite, a noun derived from Middle English atwiten "to blame", made up of at + witen "to blame", also related to wijs and wit. The initial A dropped off because it was unaccented (like the O of 'possum in some English dialects) and the final E dropped off because it was not pronounced. Funny how wiseacres can also be twits today. (Sara Goldman is neither a twit nor a wiseacre but certainly has the wisdom to spot interesting terms like today's Good Word.)
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