Today I saw two unrelated but in one way coincidental tweets adjacent in my Twitter. The first, from @PamelaLeibfried, in response to a tweet by @mollypriddy that “we gave morning people way too much power,” read “And they are so damned smug.” The second, from @BCDreyer, said “I know that some people are anti-blocking because blocking allegedly gives the blockee some sense of smug satisfaction, but that’s nothing compared to my smug satisfaction at being rid of the asshole.”
That’s the thing about smugness: it’s insufferable, but we all allow ourselves a little from time to time, as a treat. A person who is smug is a schmuck, but there are some people we will be quietly pleased to imagine thinking of us as schmucks.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines this common sense of smug as “having a self-satisfied, conceited, or consciously respectable air,” and I have to say, as much as I love the OED, that definition doesn’t fully capture the particular kind of irritating smugness can be. It could almost equally define priggish, and while there could seem to be some overlap between smugness and priggishness, in truth it’s a narrow borderland; priggishness pricks like a cactus, while smugness smothers like an overstuffed overpriced cushion.
So, after gently setting aside the plate I received when I was given the Karen Virag Award by Editors Canada, I reached behind my little Eiffel Tower filled with bottles of champagne and other sparkling wines and hefted up my ponderous copy of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary – which some years ago I portered home from the ACES conference after winning it in a spelling bee – and flipped casually to page 2153, whereat I read what I think is a more satisfying definition: “marked by or suggestive of belief in one’s own superiority, virtue, and respectability usu. accompanied by contented resistance to change, provincial lack of vision, or deprecation of others.”
I may be coming at it just from my own perspective, but I do think the “belief in one’s own superiority” is a particularly signal characteristic of smug as it’s used today, as is “resistance to change” or “lack of vision.” When I think of smug people I have encountered, top of the list is political insiders: that subset of people who have worked in some government office or otherwise had some particular “in” in politics (such as working for a candidate or giving lots of money to a candidate) who are prone to chuckling lightly, rolling their eyes, waving their hands, or whatnot, any time someone in earshot suggests that something better than what we have now might be possible.
Not that they are the only smug people out there, of course. I’m sure we can all think of instances where someone who had a certain seemingly unassailable advantage – money, height, insider status, or some other apparently unalienable boon – treated our concerns or questions as so much lint to be blown off. (The comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates conveyed the sense rather trenchantly a decade ago in their song “Pregnant Women Are Smug.”)
And as repellant as it is on the receiving end, smugness has an undeniable appeal on the giving end. It’s just so… snug. You get to be calm and happy and yet somehow smuggle in just a little bit of emotional murder.
And so you might think that smug is related to snug, and perhaps to smuggle. Well, yes, I suppose you might think that, since you haven’t been reading up on it. Oh, now, that’s fine, I’ll tell you; you had no reason to know better, really. In truth, snug has an uncertain origin but is likely related to Proto-Germanic words meaning ‘tight’ or ‘handsome’, and has no evidence of relation to smug, and although snuggle is quite obviously derived from snug with the -le suffix we see from time to time, there’s simply no evidence to tie smug to smuggle – in fact, smuggle came into English from a Proto-Germanic root meaning ‘creep’ or ‘sneak’ or ‘slip’.
No, no, smug is a little mysterious – oh, when we’re smug, aren’t we always playing at being mysterious? – but before it had our current sense it started up in English as meaning ‘well-groomed, neat, smart’ and seems to have come from Low German smuk ‘delicate, neat, trim’ – though it’s hard to account for just how that k became a g because, though I wouldn’t expect you to know this, it’s not a usual change in that environment between those two languages. But anyway, that Low German smuk is, yes, related to German schmuck ‘pretty’ and Schmuck ‘jewelry, ornament’.
And does that mean therefore that smug and schmuck (in the English sense of ‘jerk’, taken from Yiddish for ‘penis’ or ‘foreskin’ or ‘fool’) are, back in the mists of time, the same word? Well… we’re not sure. There were, it seems, several kinds of schmuck and related words in the Germanic sphere at the time, and they may or may not all have come from the same source.
But we know, don’t we.