Over the last week, I have exercised on an elliptical trainer that had a SmartRate heart monitor; watched movies on a smart TV; applied a product called Smart Serum to my face; and checked messages on a smartphone that has Smart Stay, Smart Pause, and Smart Scroll functions. My daily routine includes locking my car with a smart key and adjusting the temperature in my house with a smart thermostat; my utilities are monitored by a smart meter.

That's enough ambient smartness to impress even a Mensa member. And it leads me to wonder: when did smart become the descriptor of choice for so many unrelated non-sentient entities — and an omnipresent component of brand names?

Not quite as recently as I'd thought, it turns out. But its use has grown exponentially over the last several decades.

The more you look at smart, the more you appreciate its long, branching history. A single Old English root, smeorten ("to be painful"), gave rise to a noun meaning "a sharp pain"; a verb meaning "to cause a pain"; an adjective meaning "stylish"; and an adjective meaning "quick" or "deft." (This overlap in meaning is paralleled by sharp, which also comes to us from Old English.)  By 1400 smart also meant "cheeky" or "impudent," a sense we retain in "smart-aleck" and "Don't get smart with me, young man!" And by the late 16th century smart had acquired the additional sense of "clever," "knowledgeable," or "intelligent."

One of the first brands to incorporate smart in its name was the literary magazine The Smart Set, founded in the United States in 1900 and edited from 1914 to 1924 by two giants of journalism, H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. "Smart set" had been a colloquialism since the mid-19th century, denoting "the fashionable portion of society," but smart here had at least one supplemental meaning: the publication's original subtitle was "A Magazine of Cleverness," as seen in this 1911 cover.

Later subtitles included "True Stories from Real Life" and "The Young Woman's Magazine." The magazine folded in 1930.

Another colloquialism, smart apple, was adopted as a Washington State apple brand in the early 1950s. According to the OED, "smart apple" is an Americanism meaning either "a person who wishes to appear clever or knowledgeable, but is regarded as smug and annoying" or "a smart cookie." ("Smart cookie" — like "tough cookie" — is another Americanism, first recorded in print in 1939 in the Oakland [California] Tribune. Predictably, Smart Cookie is the name of at least one cookie company.) The Smarties candy brands — there are two unrelated companies, one in the UK and one in the US — take their names from the plural of smarty, which has been around since the mid-19th century; it can mean "a member of a smart set" or "a person who is smart or witty."

The sense of smart = shrewd extends to the slangy smart-ass, which first appeared in print in 1951 in an American detective novel. (OED on smart-ass: "orig. and chiefly U.S.; characterized by an overly clever or smug display of intelligence or [esp. professional] knowledge.") The term's mild vulgarity might seem to preclude its incorporation into branding and advertising, but that's not the case at all.

The Big Ass Fans company (whose logo depicts a donkey's derrière) used smart-ass in a full-page ad in 2013; the term was a jocular reference to the product's electronic workings. The company later filed for trademark protection for "Smart Ass Fan."

With this usage, we see the convergence of human smart with machine smart, representing the most recent evolution of this hard-working word. Its origins are apparent in smart pill, used by Dr. Timothy Leary in his 1968 book The Politics of Ecstasy to mean a type of psychedelic chemical that improves brain function. You can even see it in Smarte Carte, founded in 1967 ("long before ATMs, airline kiosks, and automated kiosks," as the website puts it) and one of the first self-service luggage-cart operations in airports. But it was a 1970 coinage, smart bomb — "a bomb that is guided to its target with a high degree of precision," to quote the OED — that inspired a spate of smart blends and brand names that have come to define the computer era.

Smart meter (for measuring electrical usage) came along in 1974. Smart chip (a microchip) appeared in 1977. Smartphone — originally any phone equipped with computer technology, and later a mobile phone with Internet access — came into use in 1980 along with smart card (a plastic card with embedded integrated circuits) and smart highway (which senses traffic flow to improve efficiency).

Smart quotes — the curly quotation marks you see “here” — were originally a proprietary, capitalized feature of miniWRITER, an early word processor. The term emerged in 1987 and has survived in general typographic usage; many modern word-processing programs insert smart quotes automatically.

Smart fabric (first documented in 1991) responds to temperature or other external stimuli. A smart grid (1993) uses electronics to detect and react to local water or electricity usage. The first patent for a smart TV was filed in 1994, at the dawn of the World Wide Web; the term now describes a television with computing ability or Internet connectivity.

Smart mob, coined by the technology writer Howard Rheingold for the title of a 2002 book, denotes "a large group of people organized by means of mobile phones or other wireless devices who assemble together or act collectively, typically for political purposes." Smart jewelry — a ring, bracelet, or necklace that can send notifications to the wearer or, in case of emergency, to the police — is too new a term to have made it into standard dictionaries, but that hasn't stopped technology journalists from writing about it

Smart can be a trademark: it's the name of a German automobile brand that was conceived by designers from the Swatch watch company; the company is now a division of Daimler AG, which also manufactures Mercedes-Benz. The name has multiple meanings, including "stylish" and "intelligent," but it was originally an acronym for Swatch Mercedes Art. The company introduced its subcompact smart Fortwo (yes, that's the way it's capitalized and spelled) in Europe in 1998 and in the US in 2008.

SMART is a business acronym, too. It was coined in 1981 by a corporate planner, George T. Doran, who used it in a Management Today article about the importance of objectives and the difficulty in reaching them. Doran's SMART stood for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely, but later writers have substituted words like "assignable," "realistic," and "time-related." There's even a SMARTER (the E stands for Evaluated, the second R for Reviewed) and a SMARTTA, in which the final two letters stand for Trackable and Agreed.

Very rarely, the smart in a brand name refers not to the product but as a flattering reference to the consumer. That was the case with a breakfast cereal from Kellogg's called Smart Start (implication: you are starting your day intelligently). The cereal was introduced in 2006; by 2012 it had disappeared from supermarket shelves. Did buyers balk at the hint of an IQ test? Hard to say.

A sad fate also befell Smart Choices, a food-industry labeling campaign intended "to help shoppers easily identify smarter food and beverage choices," according to a New York Times article published in 2009. When the Smart Choices checkmark showed up on sugary cereals like Froot Loops and Cocoa Puffs, nutritionists — and the US Food and Drug Administration — protested, and the program was suspended just seven months after it began.

Then there's the case of a well-established smart brand that turns out to be a red herring, or perhaps a smart smelt. Smart & Final is a chain of low-price grocery stores, based in the Los Angeles area, that traces its roots back to 1871; it was a pioneer of the "cash-and-carry" retail model, which allowed customers to select their own merchandise. After a series of mergers, the company took the name "Smart & Final" in 1914. I grew up in Los Angeles, where Smart & Final stores were everywhere, and I was probably not alone in assuming that the name had to do with the pricing strategy: a smart price (that fits your budget) and a final price (the very lowest). All of that may be true, but it's not the origin of the name. It is, improbably, an eponym, named for J.S. "Jim" Smart and H.D. "Hildane" Final, who bought the company in 1914 and gave it their own surnames.

Pretty smart, eh? And that's my final word on the subject.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday January 26th 2015, 3:09 AM
Comment by: Lesley G. (Lowestoft United Kingdom)
Interesting. Great read.
Monday January 26th 2015, 7:03 AM
Comment by: Ted J. (Kitchener Canada)
What an efficient word. It has developed into such an adaptive word that can easily mean so much in just the context it is said. This is fun. You can be book smart or street smart and you can know what that indicates even being not so smart for certain things. The 60's TV comedy show Get Smart was also a clever use of the word to ironically give the viewer a taste of it's humor.

The origins of the surname meant being quick to describe a person. If only more words were so "smart".
Friday February 20th 2015, 12:47 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
Thanks for the effort you put into your articles I eagerly look forward to them.

Once stated, it seems a logical path for smart to grow out of pain. I always found learning painful.


Thanks again,

Mike
Monday February 23rd 2015, 1:08 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Anything labeled "smart" has a potential problem in the need for retronyms or antonyms--if a phone is not "smart," what is it? (As it happens, the completely unintuitive answer in this case is that the predecessor/opposite of a smartphone is a "feature phone.")

In my career in software, I've been present at the birth of a number of "smart-" labeled features. I feel in such cases it's always my duty to ask a) does this make the preceding version of this feature dumb? and b) what are you going to name the feature that supersedes your "smart" feature? ("'Even smarter,' perhaps?") To my mind, it's not a winning strategy to label something "smart" just because today it has more capabilities than yesterday's model.

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