Smarty-pants and smarty-boots are two idioms with their origins in the 1860s. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. An idiom can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as kick the bucket, barking up the wrong tree and piece of cake, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meanings of the expressions smarty-pants and smarty-boots, where these terms came from and some examples of their use in sentences.
Smarty-pants and smarty-boots are terms used to describe a know-it-all, a smart-alack, a show-off. Someone who is described as a smarty-pants or a smarty-boots is annoying to engage with and difficult to be around. A smarty-pants has to always be right, and always tries to force others to acknowledge that he is right. Sometimes, the terms smarty-pants and smarty-boots are used as a form of endearment, but it is best not to use the terms with someone you do not know well. The terms smarty-pants and smarty-boots are reminders of a time when the word smarty was used to mean a know-it-all or someone who is too smart for his own good or overconfident. This definition of smarty dates back to the 1860s. The terms smarty-pants and smarty-boots date to the 1920s-1930s. In time, these expressions became schoolyard taunts. Today, they are somewhat dated. Smarty-pants is mostly an American term, and smarty-boots is mostly a British term. Note that the Oxford English Dictionary renders these words with hyphens, though they are often seen as two, separate words without hyphens or more rarely, as one word without a spaces or hyphens.
She turned to me and in the meanest, most smarty-pants way she sneered, “You should have never started in the first place.” (The Wheeling News-Register)
As NBC’s Chuck Todd said on Meet the Press over the weekend, “all the national smarty-pants people, we thought we knew what we were talking about in 2016.” (Forbes Magazine)
I was something of a smarty pants back then (some would say I still am, though I think I’ve mellowed a lot over the years), and I came up with a headline that I thought said it all: Come Blow Your Lines. (The Tampa Bay Times)
Equally characteristic of this period was Clive James’s pyrotechnic style of reviewing, “boisterously smartyboots in style and fake-Augustan in its grammar” as Jonathan Raban once described it. (The Guardian)
Then came reports from the Toronto Star that the smarty-boots at Bell had thwarted the frugality by offering a basic package with the required Canadian channels and additions few have ever heard of — meeting the letter of the CRTC law, but not the spirit. (The Tyee)