America, we have lately been told – mostly but not exclusively by conservatives – has a “smug liberal” problem. The problem is characterized by “a condescending, defensive sneer toward any person or movement outside of its consensus, dressed up as a monopoly on reason,” wrote Emmett Rensin in Vox last month. It’s evident in the attitudes of late-night comedians, wrote David French last week in the National Review; its features include “the generous use of selective clips from Fox News, copious amounts of mockery, and a quick Wikipedia- and Google-search level of factual understanding.”
Not so fast, countered Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic: “Yes, there is a smug style in liberalism. Yes, it is wrongheaded and politically counterproductive. But this is not just a liberal trait, or even mostly a liberal trait. This trait is everywhere in U.S. politics and culture. And it is ubiquitous in conservatism.” He continues:
Was any longtime political commentator more smug than Bill O’Reilly, king of TV conservatives starting in 1996? Who more fully embodies the ethos, “our opponents are corrupt, evil, and stupid, while we are obviously correct,” than Rush Limbaugh?
At the same time, writes Frank Rich in the New York Times, the current season’s surprise box-office hit, the horror spoof Get Out, targets “smug” white liberals from a black man’s perspective. And Cambridge graduate Tom Hiddleston was outed in Page Six last month as “too smug” to play James Bond.
What is this ubiquitous smugness, and how did it come to define so much of contemporary culture?
Our current definition of smug – “exhibiting or feeling great satisfaction with oneself or one’s situation; self-righteously complacent” – emerged around 1700, about 150 years after smug first appeared in print. The adjective originally meant “trim, neat, spruce, smart”; the OED tells us it described only “male persons.” A few decades later, smug began to be used to describe women as well; here it meant “smooth” or “sleek. (There was also a noun smug that meant “blacksmith.”) Both noun and adjective are “of doubtful origin”; some sources claim a derivation from German smuk (“trim, neat”), but the OED says “the change of k to g would be very irregular.” There may be a relationship between smug and smuggle, which came into English from Low German or Dutch in the 1660s from words meaning “to creep” or “to sneak.” (There’s no connection between smug and smog. The latter is a portmanteau of smoke and fog, first used in London publications in 1905.)
The “neat” and “self-satisfied” meanings of smug co-existed and shaded into one another for quite a while. Samuel Pepys wrote in 1669 of a man “who looks mighty smug upon his marriage,” suggesting satisfaction, but in 1812 Byron wrote of “thy spruce citizen, wash’d artizan, And smug apprentice,” which suggests the “trim” meaning. Things got sorted out by the late 19th century, and we’re left with the single “annoyingly self-righteous” sense.
Smug is being attached to liberals now, but in past decades it was much more commonly associated with conservatives. Colonel Blimp, the character created by the British cartoonist David Low in 1934, quickly became so archetypal that the crossword clue “smug conservative” produces the five-letter solution BLIMP.
Circa 1930s, via Wikipedia.
The association of smug and conservative goes back been further. In 1909, a Montana publication called The Miner’s Magazine ran a story headlined “What Is Radicalism?” that contained this passage:
A radical is generally truthful – at least he raises his voice against things as he sees them. He may be wrong, but he is of infinitely more benefit to society than the smug conservative, who never gets out of the groove.
Then there’s the photo-sharing site SmugMug, founded in 2002 – on a shoestring, media accounts like to stress – by father and son Chris and Don MacAskill; it remains a family business. I’ve read everything I could find about SmugMug but haven’t been able to learn why the founders chose such a puzzling and off-putting name. After 15 successful years, though, it’s most likely the founders who are feeling smug.