Some people are so smart you can almost hear the crack of the lash.
Patrick J. Purcell, publisher of the Boston Herald, said one of his new employees “is smart as a whip, very creative.” An article in Entertainment Weekly about The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s new television series, said Olivia Munn plays “a whip-smart financial reporter.” A review of a mystery novel in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix talked about a senior detective “who is smart as a whip.”
The whip being talked about is not the member of Parliament who makes sure a party’s MPs toe the party line (more of that later). It’s the coiled length of leather that makes a loud noise when snapped in the air.
But why smart? The quick answer is that “smart” originally meant painful, a sense pretty much lost in the adjective but still current in the verb people use when stung by a wasp (“Ooh, that smarts”).
In fact, a 2,000-year-old man would have been around in the year 1000 when smeart, the Old English form of the adjective, meant causing or inflicting pain. Shakespeare used it that way in Hamlet: “How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience.”
Nobody is sure where smart came from – it might be related to the Latin mordere, to bite – but the adjective planted itself in English. By 1400 it referred to severe words (a smart rejoinder) and to impudent people (Don’t get smart with me, kid), and by 1700 to neatly attired people (a smart dresser), who were said to be “smart as a carrot new scraped.”
As early as the 1300s, the word also meant quick. But the sense of being clever, which grew out of that quickness, didn’t show up until the 1600s. At some point, the “smart” in smart as a whip apparently crossed over from painful to quick-witted.
In the 1600s, “smart money” referred to cash given to English soldiers and sailors who lost a limb while in service. It was compensation for something that smarted. In the 1920s, smart money acquired the sense of clever money, the kind invested by people thought to have special knowledge. Novice investors were urged to follow the smart money.
But let’s get back to whipping. The whip who makes sure everyone toes the party line was originally called a whipper-in in Britain’s Parliament. The term was borrowed from fox hunting, in which the whipper-in made sure the hounds didn’t wander off. Yes, he may have used a whip. No, I don’t know the number to call to complain.
In contrast, the whipping boy was on the receiving end of the whip. The phrase refers to a scapegoat, a target for undeserved harm. Whether it was Roman citizens who by law could not be flayed with a whip, or freemen in medieval England who could not be whipped, or English princes who were similarly exempt from that punishment, the lot fell to slaves or underlings to suffer the floggings instead.
The phrase lives on. Last month in these pages, gold was described as going “from darling to whipping boy, from risk haven to risky business.” Sometimes even the smart money can smart.