Slathered with creepiness.
Dear Word Detective: I was thinking of the air-conditioner salesman yesterday, and the word “smarmy” jumped unbidden into my mind. It’s in the dictionary, but they don’t even bother with “obscure origin.” They just omit the etymology section entirely. Searching your site, I noticed that it is one of your favorites, but no entry about origin, et cetera. Please tell us what you can find out about it. — William Blum.
What is it about air-conditioning salesmen? We had a whole-house system installed a few years ago (the furnace, which dated back to the Civil War, had finally given up the ghost anyway), and, trying to be good consumers, we auditioned three or four of those guys. The word that popped into my mind midway through the third day of this ordeal was “oleaginous” (from the Latin “oleaginus,” meaning “oily”) but “smarmy” was definitely in the running too. We finally went with the last guy because he seemed prepared to sit on our couch and babble about freon until Christmas.
It is weird that so many dictionaries seem reluctant to admit they haven’t a clue about a word’s origins. Both the online American Heritage Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster website (www.merriam-webster.com) frequently list brief but helpful etymologies of words, but they just as often silently shrug their shoulders. They should at least show you whatever “smiley” means “beats us.”
The adjective “smarmy” is actually a relatively recent arrival in the English language. In the original literal sense of “smooth, sleek,” the earliest instance of “smarmy” found in print so far is from 1909 (“A tall, slight, smarmy-headed man,” C. Hamilton). In its more common figurative sense of “smug, obsequious, insincerely earnest” it doesn’t appear before 1924 (“Don’t you be taken in by that smarmy swine,” L. Brock). The noun form “smarm” (defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “flattering or toadying behavior”) didn’t show up until 1937. And even the verb form “to smarm,” on which the noun and adjective are based, can’t be found earlier than 1847.
The Oxford English Dictionary does label the verb “to smarm” as “origin unknown,” but the original meaning of the word when it first appeared in the 19th century, “to smear, bedaub,” provides a clue. “Smarm” appears to be rooted in the old English dialect word “smalm,” meaning “to smear the hair with pomade” (pomade being hair oil, what Vitalis TV commercials used to call “greasy kid stuff”). The eminent etymologist Eric Partridge, in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, endorsed the theory that “smalm” arose as a blending of “smear” and “balm,” which seems reasonable to me. It’s also likely that onomatopoeia played a role in the evolution of “smarm.” It is, after all, a creepy, oily-sounding little word.