It Turns Out ‘Smart Aleck’ Was An Actual Person, And A Terrible One At That

Published November 8, 2017
Updated December 14, 2018

'Smart Aleck' would share profits with the police to avoid being arrested for his cons.

Illustration Of Prostitutes

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Prostitutes on a city street, scouting out potential suitors.

The term smart aleck is usually used to describe someone who is sarcastic or humorous to a fault — someone too smart for their own good.

For a long time, people thought that the term was generic and that there was no actual Alec. However, a professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology discovered that the term actually was derived from a real-life person named Alec who was a con man that thought he was smarter than everyone else.

Alec Hoag was a pimp who lived in New York City in the 1840s. On top of being a pimp, he was also a con man and a thief. He and his wife, Melinda, would work as a team to trick unsuspecting men out of whatever they had on them at the time.

Their first scheme was a simple one.

Melinda would pick up men on the street and lead them to a dark alley where she would pick their pockets. Then, she would leave whatever she had found on the ground while she “distracted” the men, and Hoag would snatch it up while they weren’t looking.

After one of the men realized what had happened, and reported it to the police, Hoag began paying members of the police department to keep them quiet. He would offer to split whatever the stolen profits were, or send them a set amount of hush money periodically.

Riding high on the success of their scams, Melinda and Alec began to think bigger. No longer interested in the hiding in dark alleyways, they came up with a larger, more grander con.

Being a pimp, Alec would arrange for Melinda to meet men and bring them back to an apartment. She would make the men leave their clothing on a chair in the corner of her bedroom, then draw the curtains closed around her bed.

While Melinda distracted the men behind closed curtains, Alec would enter the room through a secret panel, and root through the man’s clothing, taking whatever he could find. As soon as he had hidden his loot, Alec would burst loudly through the curtains, feigning distress at catching his wife in an affair.

Origins Of Smart Aleck

Getty Images Prostitutes stealing from a sleeping man.

The men would, usually, become flustered and quickly grab their clothing and leave before checking their pockets. By the time they had realized they’d been stolen from, Alec and Melinda were long gone.

Of course, none of the men were going to report these thefts to the police for fear of revealing their own discretions. Therefore, Alec felt he was no longer obligated to continue to pay the police officers bribe money.

That failed spectacularly for him, as the officers, feeling cheated out of their money (that they’d been unfairly taking in the first place) arrested him and Melinda.

Though Alec managed to escape from prison shortly after arriving there, he was eventually recaptured for good. In prison, he earned the nickname “Smart Aleck,” after being called it by one of his arresting officers, for being too smart for his own good.

Soon, other officers began referring to criminals who thought they were smarter than the police, as “smart alecks.”

Just 20 years after Alec and Melinda Hoag were arrested, the term smart aleck was widely popularized, even appearing in print in 1865. From there, it took off, and surprisingly, hasn’t changed much since then.

After learning the origins of the term smart alec, read about these other slang terms and where they came from. Then, check out these 55 fascinating facts.

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
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Serena, Katie. "It Turns Out ‘Smart Aleck’ Was An Actual Person, And A Terrible One At That.", November 8, 2017, Accessed May 28, 2024.