That smooth, slightly smug smile, like being smeared with a small army of worms or swarmed by something squirmy and clammy. It’s the essence – the essential oil – of smarminess. The smarmy person is the opposite of a schoolmarm: no severe crispness for your betterment, just unctuousness in the service of cozening and deception. After talking to the smarmy person you feel you need a shower.
Who is smarmy? Politicians, maîtres d’hotel, funeral directors, used car salesmen, various con men… They are not all quite the same in manner, of course: some smarmy people are fawning and ingratiating, while others are simply slick and smug. The common element is oiliness. The word comes from smarm, a verb, meaning first to smear, as in put pomade on your hair, and from that meaning to behave in an oily, obsequious, flattering way. It in turn comes from smalm, a word for hair ointment – in British English, smalm and smarm (and smawm, another spelling) are pronounced the same way. Where did smalm come from? Just oozed up from somewhere, I guess. It sure sounds appropriate, though.
Surprisingly, it’s quite recent, as words go. Smalm showed up in the mid-1800s. Smarmy joined us by the early 1900s. And now there’s another variation: schmarmy, also spelled shmarmy. That joins in an assortment of sm- and sn- words (and perhaps some sl- ones as well) that are getting the s-to-sh phonaesthetic shift. The shm/shn phonaestheme tends to connote diminution, ridiculousness, derision, or occasionally cuteness (schnuggle), and it gets added especially to words that seem particularly informal to begin with. It borrows from Yiddish, which gave us words such as schmendrick, schmo, and schmuck as well as the dismissive schm- reduplication: “Poet schmoet. He scribbles.” “Cook schmook. I open a few cans.”
Does schmarmy have the same meaning as smarmy? The onset is a little mushier, the connotation a little shadier. Urban Dictionary, which is a great resource for finding out what 14-year-old boys think a word means or should mean but has a certain utility nonetheless, puts smarmy in the ‘slimy and smug’ bucket but shmarmy in the ‘creepy’ bucket.
And, hey, those 14-year-olds are the future adult users of the language. What they think words mean is going to have a real effect on what they are used to mean a quarter century from now, if not sooner. There’s also the vocabulary those future standard users are using now. So it’s worth a peek at what Urban Dictionary considers “related words” for smarmy. Leaving out the simple vulgarities, we get words in the same sphere such as slimy, sleazy, smug, fake, sarcastic, cheesy, cocky, and greedy, as well as the carbuncular smarmer, smarmite, smarmodon, and smarmosour. A regular sweet-and-bitter smarmelade of lexemes.
A sincere thanks to Iva Cheung for requesting smarmy and shmarmy.