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Anatomy of a "Smart" Word


Spiders, mobs, and power: An intelligent word trend takes off.

I’ve seldom been told I dress smartly, but I have always felt like a smart guy. Well, not that time I poured orange juice on my cereal, or when I mixed up a.m. and p.m. for a flight, or when I dropped my cell phone in the toilet. OK, maybe I don’t feel that smart after all, but perhaps I can smarten up by journalistic osmosis.

I’ve noticed compound after compound that uses the word “smart” to describe things from the deadly (smart bombs) to the handy (smart phone) to the obscure (smart dust). These days, you can search for smart-just-about-anything and find a genuine example. There’s something about calling stuff “smart” that floats our technophiliac boat.

The common denominator of many smart terms is the implication of some artificial intelligence in the form of independence or adaptability. “Smart dust” consists of tiny sensors that someday might alert us to traffic jams and earthquakes. We’re already using "smart spiders" to monitor volcano activity. The government’s description of a smart grid includes, among other features, “Self-healing from power disturbance events.” Though “smart drug” usually refers to a type of brain-enhancing, intellectual Wheaties, it can also be a drug that targets cancer cells with the precision we hope for from smart bombs. Other examples include smart mud, smart alloys, smart fabric, smart lamps, smart glass, smart rubber, and even smart bowling balls that help bowlers improve.

Other “smart” stuff is harder to categorize and seems less capable of staging a potential Cylon-type uprising. This includes the “smart power” proposed by Hilary Clinton, which she called, “...the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation.” That just sounds like better, more diversified power to me, much like a smart phone is a regular phone with more bells, whistles, and apps.

Smart mobs

are a social-media-driven antidote to the traditional “senseless mob”—smart mobs being more about community and purpose than anger and pitchforks. Then there’s Smart Water, a type of “enhanced water” that seems clever only from a marketing standpoint. Given the variety of older terms with various senses, such as “smart money” and “smart mouth,” it’s no wonder that many terms jump on the trend while muddying the meaning.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces “smart” as meaning “Of a device: capable of some independent and seemingly intelligent action” to 1972 and “smart terminal,” as in a then-cutting-edge computer terminal. That’s also the year the most popular example of the trend debuted: “smart bomb,” for laser-guided bombs that are theoretically more on-target than the dumb varieties. This 1985 use from Time shows the optimism inherent in the term: “In theory, a single such ‘smart’ bomb could scatter enough electronically guided warheads to disable 50 tanks.” The OED has examples of “smart gun” as “a (hypothetical) gun incorporating technology that renders it capable of seemingly intelligent action” going back to 1986. And we continue to look for ever-more efficient and precise weaponry, as shown in a recent piece on “smart weapons,” specifically an obstacle-avoiding one that “...shoots 25 mm exploding ‘smart’ rounds which contain embedded microchips, accurate up to 500 meters.”

For accuracy in the word-watching world, you can't do better than The New York Times On Language columnist Ben Zimmer, who emailed me these thoughts about the trend: “Very often ‘smart’ is modifying something that is seen to be difficult to manage (bombs, mobs, power, growth), so the full form ‘smart X’ takes advantage of that tension to suggest that through smart thinking we can create order out of chaos, or impose rules on an unruly world.”

Our belief in smart thinking is also an example of wishful thinking: There’s something anthropomorphic and techno-messiah-ish about this trend. It’s human nature to want to lie back on the couch eating Cheesy Poofs, while phones, bombs, mobs, and dust do our bidding. We’re lazy creatures, and the only thing we like dodging more than balls in gym class is responsibility everywhere else. The “smart” label reinforces technology-worshipping “there’s an app for that” thinking, fooling us into believing our tools can do anything, if we only make them right.

Even a dummy like me can see that’s not too smart.

Illustration by Will Etling.

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