clever and smart

The Professional Association of Teachers has voted that bright British school children should not be label(l)ed clever, but instead should be deemed successful--because among children it's not cool to be clever.

In AmE, clever is not as often used to refer to people. You might make a clever chess move or write a clever limerick, but that would prove that you were smart. In the UK these days, smart is more often used to refer to how someone dresses, rather than their intelligence.

A related BrE term is smart casual, meaning 'dressed informally, yet neatly and stylishly'. When my mother visited me in South Africa in the mid-1990s, a hotel's notice that the dining room had a smart casual dress code nearly sent her into crisis. She kept saying, "What does that mean? Can I wear slacks? What does that mean?"

The OED has a draft entry (now a full entry) for smart casual, which goes:
Chiefly Brit. Designating or characteristic of (a style of) dress which is informal yet smart, esp. smart enough to conform to a particular dress code.
I really doubt that definition would've helped my mother. Interestingly, the first use of smart casual that they've found, from 1945, comes from the New York Times, but the term, as evidenced by my mother's confusion, hasn't enjoyed the currency in the US that it has in the UK and other areas where smart is more likely to refer to dress style. Wikipedia has business casual as an equivalent for smart casual, but it isn't quite the same. You might see smart casual on a wedding or party invitation in the UK, but I can't imagine being invited to a business casual wedding.

Some clever BrE idioms are:
  • clever dick, clever clogs = someone who is cleverDads have come out on top of a new survey which asked children who they thought was the cleverest person in the world. One in four (27%) children felt that their Dad was the smartest of all, with Mum's [sic] just behind with one in five (19%) of the votes.
    However, the gloss may have been taken off the victory for Mums and Dads, with some of the other results confirming that children say the funniest things. David Beckham was perceived to be a clever clogs by one in six (17%)

  • to box clever = to be shrewd, to use your wits (hence the adjective boxing clever, which may be familiar to US fans of Elvis Costello and/or Placebo) Emma is finally goaded into action and realises that she must box clever to force Nadia out of her life for good. --UK TV Guide
  • [That's/It's] not big or clever = It's unappealing and stupid.Yeah, so I know it's not big or clever to like Oasis, but I always did and I guess I still do. --Paste Magazine

Trying to think of smart/clever idioms that are found in general American English, but not British, is tougher--as most have made their way over. The OED lists to be/get smart (with someone), meaning 'to be impudent' as US, and it's true that one would usually hear don't be/get clever in the UK, but the American version is understandable. Similarly the [originally AmE] term street smart(s) is generally understood in the UK. There are some US regional uses of smart and clever that go back to other regional BrE uses, but those are foreign enough to me (and one expects rather old-fashioned), that I can't pretend to be an expert on them, so I'll let the American Heritage Dictionary do the talking:
In the 17th and 18th centuries, in addition to its basic sense of “able to use the brain readily and effectively,” the word clever acquired a constellation of imprecise but generally positive senses in regional British speech: “clean-limbed and handsome,” “neat and convenient to use,” and “of an agreeable disposition.” Some of these British regional senses, brought over when America was colonized, are still found in American regional speech, as in the South, where clever can mean “good-natured, amiable” in old-fashioned speech. The speech of New England extends the meaning “good-natured” to animals in the specific sense of “easily managed, docile.” Perhaps it was the association with animals that gave rise to another meaning, “affable but not especially smart,” applicable to people when used in old-fashioned New England dialects.

Smart is a word that has diverged considerably from its original meaning of “stinging, sharp,” as in a smart blow. The standard meaning of “clever, intelligent,” probably picks up on the original semantic element of vigor or quick movement. Smart has taken on other senses as a regionalism. In New England and in the South smart can mean “accomplished, talented.” The phrase right smart can even be used as a noun meaning “a considerable number or amount”: “We have read right smart of that book” (Catherine C. Hopley).
These days, on both sides of the Atlantic, smart is used more and more for technology that can apply itself in apt ways--hence smart bomb, smart card, etc. That this is used in BrE is a testament (not that we need it) to the force of American English in the world.


  1. GOOD post! I have nothing to add, really...except that I remember YEARS ago that English friends used the phrase "...and what a CLEVER BOY!" to describe my very--smart West Highland White Terrier, and I thought it was very strange.

    Now, after living here for almost 4 years, I think nothing about it when I hear "clever" used in that context.

    However, hearing the ad(vert) on TV where Tess SOMBBODY calls a particular type/flavoUr of yogurt "gorgeous" STILL sounds very alien to my American ears!


  2. Re Janet's comment - Tess Daly and GOD doesn't that advert irritate?!

    I used to work for Asda, and the swipe cards we used in the vending machines in the cafeteria were called Smart Cards - I assumed that Walmart brought it over when they bought Asda (along with calling everyone 'Colleagues' and having 'Runners').

    I was going to mention Placebo with 'bixong clever', because his Transatlantic accent always makes it sound so exotic...

    I think I'd say 'Don't get smart with me', but that might be a regional thing.

    My uncle was a 'Smartie' in the 80s... as far as I remember the Smart in question was either a local or national politician who implemented training schemes for young people, and people on the schemes became named after him :)

  3. As a dad I now feel more clever!


  4. Don't you mean you feel more successful?

  5. My work (in Hove (UK)) has a 'smart business casual' dresscode. However many times i ask, nobody can tell me what the hell this means. The only thing explicitly banned is denim, so i tend just to wear whatever i like!

  6. Is "smarten up" ever used over there and does it have the same meaning? If not, is there an equivalent?

  7. Which meaning of smarten up are you referring to? The verb is used in the UK with various meanings.

  8. Here in the US "smarten up" is normally taken to mean the same thing as "wise up". I was wondering if there is a similar expression in BrE. Clever up maybe?

  9. No, clever doesn't work as a verb. Smarten up can be used to mean 'make smarter', i.e. the opposite of dumbing down or to mean 'spruce up' (esp. one's dress). I've also found examples of it meaning 'wise up', but that's not the most common use.

    The 1989 edition of the OED lists no meanings of smarten that relate to intelligence (though it does have appearance senses), but there are certainly lots of internet examples of Britons using 'smarten' to relate to intelligence in some way.

  10. > the word clever acquired a constellation of imprecise but generally positive senses in regional British speech: “clean-limbed and handsome,”

    I'm reminded of the words of the folksong 'The Blacksmith', possibly dating back to the 17th C, where "clever" appears to be used in the above sense:

    "A blacksmith courted me, nine months and better.
    He fairly won my heart, wrote me a letter.
    With his hammer in his hand, he looked so clever,
    And if I was with my love, I'd live forever.

    And where is my love gone, with his cheek like roses,
    And his good black billycock on, decked with primroses?
    I'm afraid the scorching sun will shine and burn his beauty,
    And if I was with my love, I'd do my duty." [etc]

    I have also heard "not clever" used in informal British speech with the sense of "in poor health": "You're not looking so clever this morning, me ol' mate" - said to someone with a cold, or a bad hangover (!)

  11. Yes, I've heard not clever = unwell, too. Thanks for mentioning it, Howard.

  12. I(BrE) wouldn't use 'clever' to describe bright schoolchildren as a general rule anyway; I'd use ... er, well, 'bright'. Maybe 'intelligent', which I'd also use for adults. I don't think it's just among children that 'it's not cool to be clever': it's not really a word with particularly positive values associated in any BrE context or phrase I can think of outside appropriately patronising enthusiasm to babies or pets, like to Janet's dog: "Aren't you a clever boy!"

    'Clever' in BrE connotes something about the person's character as well as his intellect: it often carries an implication of 'calculating' or 'sly' almost. If a child was pointed out to you as 'clever' it might be more of a warning than a recommendation! "You want to watch that one..."
    'Clever clogs' is a taunt to someone seen to be showing off their braininess (= 'smart Alec', which is presumably an AmE import?). You can also be 'too clever by half' or 'too clever for your own good'. ('Bright' and 'intelligent' don't really work here.)

    'Smart' with regard to intelligence, on the other hand, has to me more of an implication of 'wise', 'shrewd', having or showing perhaps rather more than common sense. I might say someone had made a smart decision or a smart move (as in a game, literally or figuratively).

    I'd also use 'smart' interchangeably with 'sharp' in some expressions of haste: the injunction 'quick smart/sharp!', 'look smart/sharp [about it]' and 'sharpish/smartish'.

    1. BrE (Scot, late 60s) Sorry, but I’m afraid I feel quite uncomfortable reading this. Firstly, I am used to bright children being referred to as clever. Secondly, I was clever at school, and have been on the receiving end of most of the negative connotations of the word listed above, mostly from wannabe bullies. I believe people talk about “the tall poppy syndrome”. I’ve even been told that clever people are never happy, usually by people on a mission to make smart people unhappy.

  13. I've come across 'smarten up' in Navy contexts which include 'smarten up your ideas', where domestic usage would usually apply to dressing more smartly. yet 'to dress smarter' would hint to applying brains to the act of dressing. Curious.
    Up in Tyneside one can have 'a clever shelf' [e.g. tv series, When the Boat Comes In]. This is Geordie dialect, could be construed as a shelf that has had thought put into it and fits nicely the duality of 'smart'. I have always used 'smart' to mean both well turned out and able to use brains, and still do.

  14. Here in Canada, a parent might say to a child, "Smarten up," meaning, "stop misbehaving."

    Also, because I enjoy reading British novels and blogs so much, I tend to use the word clever a lot but only in a positive way. It's not used much here but I think of it more as wise or shrewd. Smart just seems so bland. Clever seems smarter to me somehow. But I had no idea it had a negative connotation in the UK. I will now make sure not use clever or clever clogs to describe any brits I know.

  15. It doesn't have bad connotations, really. It's generally good to be clever. The school issue is that singling children out as smart/clever is a good way to get them beaten up on the playground. That's true on both sides of the Atlantic...

  16. clever clogs, is definately something to use only when on good terms, it's a bit cheeky and patronizing.

    "don't you get clever with me, mate" was one of the main phrases I heard in my childhood, I guess you amis would translate that to "don't try to outsmart me".

    A smartie is a sugar covered chocolate drop...??
    but being smart is definately something that sounds incredibly US to me unless used to describe someone's clothing, haircut, interior design or for example layout of a document...
    The only UK smart = intelligent use I know is "smart arse" which I understood to be especially negative because it refers to the american useage of smart i.e. also means you are being loud and pentrating about being in the right/more knowlegeable.

  17. "Smart casual" is a linguistic and social abomination. In practice nobody knows what it means, so to be safe it just means (for men anyway): smart but without a tie. Try turning up to a "smart casual" wedding in anything else and you'll get some seriously evil looks.

  18. "Clever" is used disparagingly in one of C.S.Lewis' Narnia books - sorry, don't remember which one. But I, an American, read it as a child 30 years ago and to this day still remember how novel and remarkable it was that someone could apply the idea of "cleverness" to someone as an insult.

    In the book, "clever" seems to have been intended to connote something like "sharp practice" -- i.e. using one's wiles to gain unfair advantage without consideration for another party who is involved.

  19. When we first came to the US from Russia my father (who learned a lot of English, probably of the British variety, in Russia) insisted that one thing wrong with American values is that people who are smart are valued over those who are clever. In his mind smart meant crafty/devious, probably something like "street smart", whereas clever meant knowledgeable, knowing how to use your brain. Does anyone have this distinction?

  20. Growing up in New Zealand, I can remember hearing the phrase "It smarts a bit", referring to something being painful. But admittedly I haven't heard it used that way in quite some time now.
    I assume it was based on the old meaning of something that is sharp or stinging.

  21. On a slightly different note, I've been trying to maintain that when Brits use clever they can often mean "intelligent" although this does not seem to come out in the dictionaries.

    Americans use it in it's primary sense, to mean quick and imaginative, maybe able to fool others, while "intelligent" is more serious and does not suggest a con artist.

    This I have picked up by listening, but no one seems to agree with me.

    What do you think?

  22. I (AmE) largely agree with the prior commenter, but with a twist: I don't think "clever" necessarily has a negative connotation when it modifies something specific. A clever solution to a difficult problem is one that neatly solves the problem in a way that wouldn't be obvious. It implies a certain creativity, not merely intelligence, and perhaps even an aesthetic appeal. Same with a clever idea, or a clever trick.

    A clever person, on the other hand, is not entirely to be trusted, and is certainly not the same as a smart person. At best, a clever person might have clever ideas but not necessarily deep systemic understanding. Probably more facile than thoughtful, and while he or she may adroitly use gimmicks or shortcuts to reach intelligent results in cases where they're applicable, one would question his or her ability to extrapolate a broader principle and apply it to cases where the gimmicks or shortcuts don't work. More commonly, though, "clever" has a flavor of deviousness or deceit, or at least seeking some advantage whether fairly or unfairly. It comes through nicely in the phrase "too clever by half," which I would identify as a British idiom but one that's used reasonably frequently, if somewhat archly, on these shores.

    "Smart," on the other hand, always refers to intelligence, with no negative (or otherwise remarkable) connotations, except when used in a phrase such as "ouch, that smarts" or "that's gotta smart." Smart = stylish sounds foreign and/or affected.

  23. Note that the comments to this post suggest that the positive/negative connotations of "clever" v. "smart" to describe a person on opposite sides of the Atlantic may be mirror images. Here, describing someone as "smart" would be at worst neutral and more likely an unqualified compliment, whereas describing him or her as "clever" would be a bit of a backhanded compliment. The opposite seems to hold in BrE.

    I should mention also that the original post draws the same distinction between clever + idea and clever + person that I raised in my prior comment, and descibed the latter as unusual in AmE, with which I agree. My additional point is just that, in my experience, the previous commenter's gloss on "clever" as carrying connotations in AmE of not-serious and possibly-deceitful, rather than simply meaning "intelligent" as in BrE, distinctly applies to clever + person but applies only weakly, if at all, to clever + idea.

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  26. How does "casual chic" sound as a substitute for "smart casual"? Does the fact that it's nowhere near as ambiguous meaning-wise as "smart casual" makes it necessarily sound like a better option to American ears?

  27. This movie review contrasts "clever" and "intelligent" in a way that seems natural to Americans but probably would confuse a British reader:

    "The movie’s women are all clever, rather than intelligent — and it’s not clear Fogelman understands the difference between the two — and the men don’t fare much better."

    Hmm - as I re-read it, I wonder if the author, although American, has been influenced by British usage. Is he (per American usage) contrasting someone "quick and imaginative, maybe able to fool others" (to quote a commenter above) with a genuinely intelligent person, as I first thought, or is he (per British usage) contrasting someone only book-smart with someone genuinely intelligent? I guess I would have to see the actual film to find out.

  28. I feel that I just need to drop "smartass" into the mix here, since it seems to have gone unremarked so far. The meaning of "smart" in this expression is related to "clever" but in a somewhat perjorative way (as indicated by the "ass"). It reminds me though of phrases from my childhood as a BrE speaker, such as "clever bastard" or "clever sod" or "clever trevor". A "smartass" is normally someone talking to somebody else in a way that used language/knowledge to undermine to target in some way. These BrE phrases have (at least as far as I recall) a similar sense. Somebody would say something, somebody else would use language skills and/or factual knowledge to point out why the first speaker was wrong, and then the first speaker would say "who's a clever XXXX" or "stop being such a clever XXXX".

    So it seems as if the BrE/AmE clever/smart split applies even when being used as a perjorative.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)