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Navigating the semantic differences between smart, smart, and smart in the English language.

Many English words have multiple meanings, a fact that will occasionally lead to confusion (inflammable) and bloodshed (literally). Other times it will lead to one sitting down with a nice cup of tea, and quietly contemplating how language can be a peculiar thing indeed. Especially when you consider the word smart.

Most of you, being smart yourselves, can come up with a handful of different meanings for this word: intelligent ("what a smart fellow you are"), saucy ("don't you get smart with me, young man"), guided by a computer ("my smartphone can't do that"), and so on and so forth. One of the marvels of language is that we can repeatedly use this same word, with its multiple meanings, without having to stop and explain exactly which sense we intend. We do this even when the word has senses that are very similar in meaning. The semantic difference between "the smart set" (sophisticated taste) and "a smart outfit" (fashionable) is somehow navigated without explanation.

Smart also manages to function not only as an adjective, but as a verb, noun, and adverb as well (not wishing to show off, it decided to leave interjection off its résumé). One of the curious things about this word is that the initial meaning it had was not one of the ones most commonly used today (many of which deal with intelligence or shrewdness); it was the sense relating to smacking someone on the knuckles with a ruler.

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The more I learn about the history of language evolution, the more clear it is that the re-popularization of Singular They is not a linguistic crisis, and is, in fact, small beans in the grand scope of English. ^_^

June 21, 2017



Thank you for this in-depth explanation of what we thought was a common everyday word. And the "smack on the knuckles" may have been the teaching method way back when but now we learn by examples such as these that we all need to embrace the fact that everything evolves, words and ideas as well.



Many of this comes from the ability of English to sponge

in so many words from different languages into its own



It's also why English poetry is so rich

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