Smart should check the OED

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A couple of days ago, I wondered why modern English is reluctant to turn adjectives into verbs ("This towel kinds to your skin", 5/12/2018, and Laura Morland commented that "Universal verbing privileges would indeed be the kinder option." We were lamenting the loss of certain kinds of category-bending freedom, but Christopher Beanland wants us to have even less of it ("Smart knows that’s not English – how adland took a mallet to the language", The Guardian 5/14/2018):

It’s taken a millennium and a half for English to develop into a language as rich and complex as a character from your favourite multi-part Netflix drama series – and just a few years for the advertising industry to batter it into submission like a stained piñata at a child’s party.

Baffling slogans have become the new norm in adland. Perhaps Apple laid the foundations in 1997 with its famous Think Different campaign, but things have since gone up a notch: in 2010, Diesel blurted out perplexing offerings such as “Smart had one good idea and that idea was stupid”. Then came Zoopla with its “Smart knows” campaign. Now we’re informed by Ireland’s flag carrier that “Smart flies Aer Lingus”. Who are these people called Smart and how can we avoid sitting next to them on our next flight?

Today’s language-mangling ad campaigns run the greasy gamut from the somewhat confusing “Live your unexpected Luxembourg” to the head-scratching “Start your impossible”.

Interestingly, the use of smart as a noun revives a fine old 18th century tradition:

[Addison, Tatler April 1710] Mr. Bickerstaff, in consideration of his ancient friendship and acquaintance with Mr. Betterton, and great esteem for his merit, summons all his disciples, whether dead or living, mad or tame, Toasts, Smarts, Dappers, Pretty Fellows, Musicians or Scrapers, to make their appearance at the playhouse in the Haymarket on Thursday next; when there will be a play acted for the benefit of the said Mr. Betterton. 

["Gradation from a Greenhorn to a Blood", The Wit's Magazine 1784] My acquaintance now increased every hour; I was attended, flattered, and caressed; was often invited to entertainments, supped every night at a tavern, and went home in a chair; was taken notice of in public places, and was universally confesses to be improved into a Smart.

[Samuel Bishop, Epigram CCXXIX, 1796]:
Our smarts (so much refin'd the modern speech is)
Say " Inexpressibles ," instead of Breeches .
In English this may do—if French you quote,
The word but half describes—a sans Culotte !
Would you in adequate terms state his condition,
Add t'other half to clinch your definition:
Breeches to him are absolute Incompatibles ,
Both Inexpressibles , and Un-come-at-ables !

As for "Start your impossible", the meaning seems clear enough, but if his puzzlement persists, Mr. Beanland can hope for divine assistance ("Miracles: Your Impossible is Possible", Xulon Press 2017).

[h/t Rob Wilson]



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    May 14, 2018 @ 3:30 pm

    Mr Beanland is clearly a man after my own heart.

  2. jick said,

    May 14, 2018 @ 3:36 pm

    Compared to "I•SEOUL•U", they all seem positively decent.

    (Yes, that's the official slogan of Seoul, whatever that means.)

    [(bgz): See Victor's 2015 post for more on that one.]

  3. FM said,

    May 14, 2018 @ 3:57 pm

    @jick: after the May 8 primary, I got a sticker that says "I Ohio voting." (Well, rather, "I [silhouette map of Ohio] voting" but there's only one way to read that as far as I can tell.)

  4. Craig said,

    May 14, 2018 @ 4:01 pm

    The examples you show, though, don't use "smart" in singular form as the subject of a sentence with no article, so the usage Mr. Beanland finds objectionable seems rather different. To my ears, your examples read fine, while the advertising slogans Mr. Beanland gives do not.

  5. Mark Meckes said,

    May 14, 2018 @ 4:40 pm

    Is it maybe easier to turn an adjective directly into a gerund, bypassing the plain verb form? I'm thinking of constructions like "The Greening of America". In some sense that's another way to go from adjective to noun, but there's a verb implicit in there.

  6. Electric Dragon said,

    May 14, 2018 @ 6:35 pm

    – Kenneth, it's "we peacock comedy." You say the peacock.
    – What? That's insane.

  7. markonsea said,

    May 14, 2018 @ 7:29 pm

    There's a link on the page carrying Beanland's article to "Grammar gripes: why do we love to complain about language?"

    The sub-head of this points out: "Technology and jargon are changing language whether we like it or not."

    That's Beanland seen to, then.

  8. Keith said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 1:45 am

    Those examples from between 1710 and 1796 look to me as if they take the term "smart" to mean "a smartly dressed, refined person", while the advertising slogans seem to take it to mean "an intelligent person".

    [(myl) That's a general shift in the meaning of smart over the past few hundred years.Where's the indignation?]

    But whole paragraphs in magazines is a very different context to the two to six word advertising slogan.

    Christopher Beanland surely knows this, but he is paid to write something for the Grauniad and when the deadline looms and the page is still blank, there is always some low-hanging fruit to be picked by peeving

  9. Jan Freeman said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 2:13 am

    @FM: The Ohio image is meant to be read as "I [heart, i.e. love] voting," on the assumption that if you squint really hard you can read the shape of Ohio as a heart.

  10. Picky said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 2:46 am

    Surely the whole point of these weird slogans is that they are not (at least not yet) part of the evolution of the language. They sound un-English because they are un-English, and that is the intention of the copywriters: to grab attention by a distortion of native idiom. To get all po-faced about the article is therefore, I suggest, to miss the point.

    [(myl) But if a slogan like "Start your impossible" is stupid and obnoxious, it's not because the advertising industry is undoing a millennium and a half of progress in the English language, but because the slogan is stupid and obnoxious. And in particular it's not because using an adjective as a noun is battering English "into submission like a stained piñata at a child’s party", nor because the intended meaning should be a cause for "head-scratching".]

  11. Michael Watts said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 3:01 am

    "The greening of America" may be helped out by the obvious infelicity of "the greenening of America".

  12. Rachael said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 4:50 am

    I agree with Craig, there's a grammatical difference between "smart" as an abstract noun and "a smart" as a singular concrete noun meaning a smart person, and a semantic difference between the smartly-dressed meaning and the intelligent meaning.

    I'm also amused by the example in the article of "Find your epic". With the fashionable use of "epic" as an adjective, it is an example of the thing being discussed, but with "epic" as a noun meaning a kind of story, it's completely unremarkable.

  13. Martin said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 6:34 am

    Is this use of “smart” not somewhat equivalent to the use of “misery” in “misery loves company”?

  14. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 7:09 am

    I see a bumper sticker on a neighbor's car that seems to read "I tomato my farmer," but I suppose anyone who has smarts will realize that the tomato is meant to be seen as a heart.

  15. Philip Anderson said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 7:48 am

    As one of the comments in the paper points out, “handsome is as handsome does”; “smart is as smart does” would seem even more true. Or “grumpy is as grumpy does” maybe.

    None of the “baffling” examples are difficult to interpret, with judiciously-inserted missing words.

  16. cervantes said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 8:08 am

    Richard Dawkins tried to get atheists to identify as "the brights." It failed, but not because of the grammar stretching. Using an adjective as a noun is a gesture that largely succeeds or fails on aesthetic grounds, I think. A writer might refer to "the fashionables," or, well, "the deplorables." You can do it, and people will like it or they won't.

  17. David L said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 8:39 am

    If I were to start living my Luxembourg, it would certainly be unexpected.

  18. David L said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 8:41 am

    Is this use of “smart” not somewhat equivalent to the use of “misery” in “misery loves company”?

    I don't think so — 'misery' is referring to the state of mind in general, not a particular person who is miserable.

    But this reminds me — when I was young and in a grumpy or sullen mood, my mother would say "don't be such a misery."

  19. Joe Post said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 8:42 am

    I think that the way to look at these things is the way evolution looks at mutations — as the raw materials for forging the language (or species) of the future. Most of them will fall by the wayside, but tossing them out for consideration serves a useful purpose.

  20. Chris Button said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 8:56 am

    Using an "adjective" as a "noun" in an unfamiliar way to consumers would originally have caused consumers to pause. That is precisely what advertisers want consumers to do and as such deserves some kudos in its early days.

    However, while something like Nutella's "Spread the happy" is more linguistically jarring (no pun intended) than Coca-Cola's "Open happiness", the approach is just representative of a stale trend such that consumers are unlikely to pause except perhaps to be irritated by it. On the other hand, the superficially more conventional Coca-Cola example employs a clever linguistic play on "open" as a transitive verb (i.e. what consumers do to the bottle) and as an intransitive verb (i.e. happiness for all). Having said that, it might be noted that this couldn't really be exploited to its full potential since the transitivity play doesn't tend to translate globally.

  21. Ursa Major said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 9:01 am

    "Misery" is a noun, so there is nothing ungrammatical about "misery loves company". The comparison to "smart" would be "miserable loves company".

    In fact, the OED records miserable as a noun meaning a miserable person or miserable people as a class, and including the article to give "the miserable love(s) company" sounds ok to me. Applying that to smart, saying "the smart should check the OED" is also acceptable to me.

  22. BZ said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 10:50 am

    I think an adjective preceded by "the" doesn't become a noun, but a noun phrase with an implied noun. "the smart" or "the French" or whatever just imply "person" or "people".

  23. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 11:29 am

    Sometimes it goes in the other direction, though, where smart is a noun that the writer makes into a seeming adjective, as in the movie title Get Smart.

  24. Martin said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 12:41 pm

    I don't think so — 'misery' is referring to the state of mind in general, not a particular person who is miserable.

    But my interpretation of the ‘smart’ in (say) “Smart flies Aer Lingus” is much the same. To me, it doesn’t read as if it’s intending to imply that there is a particular category of persons who are only ever smart; ‘smart’ is a state of mind, and, if we believe the slogan, that state of mind apparently makes people want to fly Aer Lingus. I’m reading it as ‘smart[ness]’, not ‘smart [people]’.

  25. Toma said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 1:43 pm

    Re: "into submission like a stained piñata at a child’s party"

    Lame similes do more violence to the language than obnoxious slogans.

  26. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 1:44 pm

    None of the ad-speak cited by Beanland caused any head-scratching from me, and I am guessing the same would be true of most native English speakers.
    I think he hates them because they are ads; the same reason people love to hate on new corporate logos. It's a cultural signal that they are "above it all".
    Snobs, in other words. As well as peevers.

  27. Kyle MacDonald said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 1:48 pm

    I quote, from that disgustingly lowbrow year of 1940, when clearly the millennium and a half of progress was well and truly over with:

    "anyone lived in a pretty how town
    (with up so floating many bells down)
    spring summer autumn winter
    he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

    Women and men(both little and small)
    cared for anyone not at all
    they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
    sun moon stars rain"

    If messing with the parts of speech constitutes a mallet, then e.e. cummings missed his calling pounding a chisel. Today's language-mangling ad campaigns, indeed. May I suggest, for any luxury airline looking to rebrand: *"You sow your isn't all day. Spend a week on a sunny beach and go home knowing that you danced your did."

  28. john burke said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 11:31 pm

    Long ago, Allen Ginsberg uttered the phrase "Smart went crazy," which I always suspected was an idiomatic rendering of "Vernunft wird Unsinn."

    [(myl) It's in the poem "Bop Lyrics" — see also here.]

  29. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 16, 2018 @ 9:16 am

    In yesterday's Guardian, John Harris wrote about "bigging up diversity". Mr Harris, meet Mr Beanland.

  30. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 16, 2018 @ 9:43 am

    [(myl) That's a general shift in the meaning of smart over the past few hundred years.Where's the indignation?]

    I've seen it, mostly from people who pretend the shift hasn't happen in their country. Things like "Why are you talking about being well-dressed?"

    Jan Freeman: Not-too-recent Ohioans will remember the slogan "Ohio, The Heart of It All," which should help clarify the "I [Ohio] voting" slogan. (According to this page, Ohio replaced it with another tourism slogan early in this century.)

  31. ajay said,

    May 16, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

    Also, Beanland is an Englishman living in London, so I am willing to bet he's never been at a children's party with a pinata in his life.

  32. Luke said,

    May 17, 2018 @ 12:32 am

    The stupid, it burns!
    No wait,
    It stupids to me.

  33. Keith said,

    May 18, 2018 @ 3:06 am

    @Mark Meckes et al, on the subject of a colour adjective being verbed

    I'm puzzled by the question of why some colours can be verbed in one way, others in another way, and some don't seem to be verbable at all.

    We accept "whiten" and "blacken" readily enough.

    Some colours don't take a "-en" suffix to become verbs, they keep their spelling and simply become verbs.

    To "greenen" or to "bluen" sound weird, but the verbs "green" and "blue" sound fine; even, the preterite of the verb to blue can be used as an adjective: "blued steel". A piece of paper yellows as it ages, a loaf of bread browns in the oven (though an Egdon Heath, apparently, can "embrown itself"). I don't think I've ever encountered "orange" or "indigo" as verbs.

    An exception is "red", which gets the "-en" suffix, but which for the rules of English orthography needs to double the consonant to keep the sound of first "e": "redden".

    Is there a similar pattern in other languages, that some colours form verbs easily and simply,
    while other verbs need more tweaking, and some resist altogether?

  34. ktschwarz said,

    May 20, 2018 @ 10:53 pm

    Some colours don't take a "-en" suffix to become verbs, they keep their spelling and simply become verbs.

    I've read that the "-en" suffix stopped being productive in English a long time ago, back when English only had those three color terms — white, black, and red — the first in the Berlin and Kay sequence. In fact, Berlin and Kay's book might be the place where I read that argument.

  35. ajay said,

    May 21, 2018 @ 5:20 am

    I've read that the "-en" suffix stopped being productive in English a long time ago, back when English only had those three color terms — white, black, and red

    Has English ever had only those three terms? There are Old English words for "blue" and "green".

  36. ktschwarz said,

    May 21, 2018 @ 1:50 pm

    You're right, the chronological argument doesn't hold up. The real reason turns out to be phonological: it's restricted to adjectives of one syllable ending in an obstruent. For colors, that allows the relatively new pink — indeed, includes "pinken" dated to the late 19th century — and excludes blue, green, yellow, brown, orange, purple, and gray. Naturally, Language Log has been here before.

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