“Clever”

A Newt Gingrich soundbite caught my ear the other day. Complaining about his rival, Mitt Romney, he observed that the media “did exactly what Obama would do this fall, and kept replaying [Romney's quote] ‘Oh, I don’t really care about the poor.’ Which is not a very clever thing for someone who is very wealthy to say.”

It’s that clever–a very British use of the word, in my experience. The precise American equivalent is smart, or, more formally, intelligent. We actually use clever less to characterize a person then to describe shrewd or ingenious decisions or actions–or, if a person, then one who makes that sort of decision. British people often talk about “clever children,” or a “a clever child.” Americans, never.

Except for Newt Gingrich, who seems to be trying to bring the British usage over here. I found another quote of his, dated January 26: “The message we should give Mitt Romney is you know, ‘We aren’t that stupid and you aren’t that clever.'”

But Newt, as David St. Hubbins so sagely pointed … well, read the caption above.

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22 responses to ““Clever”

  1. “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity.
    I have erased that line.”
    – Oscar Levant

  2. I think the American meaning may be creeping in a little over here, not much, but a little. If I were being complimentary about someone’s high intelligence, I’d be more inclined to call them “bright” rather than clever, as I feel that “clever” sounds a little sarcastic and does imply an element of cunning. Possibly just me and my crowd being picky though.

  3. As my comment was posting I suddenly wondered; does cunning have anything to do with “kenning”, ie. was it originally a neutral term for high intelligence or great knowledge? If so, I can’t help thinking that it’s unfortunate if so many terms for intelligence turn into perjoratives over time. I’m going to look into this; as a certified smartarse I feel I may be being discriminated against. It’s like school all over again.

  4. I would say that in many uses that ‘clever’ is used sarcastically, as in ” very clever’ ie not. Or. from my North of England childhood, ‘clever clogs’ – ie something particularly stupid, usually about a person. I agree with Jan that ‘bright’ is used more, a typical English understatement. ‘Clever’ can imply a bit too manipulative or boastful, neither trait admirable.

  5. David Armstrong

    There’s also the other British slang meaning of “healthy” – as in “I’m not feeling too clever.”

    I think, Jan, that you find “cunning” and “kenning” are ultimately connected with “can” in the sense of “being able to know”, and as you suggest originally not pejorative. Hope you don’t think me a clever clogs for suggesting this.

    • I would never think that, especially now I know that words that could have been used to describe me in a complimentary manner have been corrupted by intelligence-bigots. I am currently sulking. Good call on the other meaning; it’s very evocative of the fuzzy-headedness thay goes along with a lot of illnesses.

    • Gus the Guerrilla

      Very canny!

  6. You are a bright lot. (And by the way, “bright” is very common in the U.S. and has been for some decades, to my ears as a somehow more egalitarian and less invidious way of saying smart or intelligent.)

  7. Clever, in British, is also an adverb – his/her use of English is clever.
    .
    Clever can be nuanced to have the same meaning as the US “smart”.

    Don’t get clever/smart with me! Using a lighted match to try and find the gas leak was not too clever/smart.

    • I might add to John B’s observations that “clever”
      also has different meanings depending on non-verbal communication like inflection and facial expression.
      Those who don’t pick up on the non-verbal clues
      often ask for help in decoding: “You’re kidding, right?”

  8. I may be misunderstanding you, John, but in the U.S. “smart” is most commonly used more along the lines of the litotes-y second example than the first (that is, “fresh,” “wise-ass,” etc.). That is, it usually means “intelligent,” straight up. There is a common expression bordering on cliche now, “smart people”–“a lot of smart people think that…”, “I like to work with smart people,” etc. Slate Magazine’s Explainer dept. chose as its 2011 Question of the Year “Why Are Smart People Usually Ugly.” (Spoiler alert: they’re not.)

  9. Wait for Newt to use the classic British put-down, “it’s not big and it’s not clever”.

  10. On average, smart people are likely to be healthier, more successful and better-looking than their counterparts. The beautiful blonde is not dumb.

  11. @ Ben:

    Great idea for a blog by the way.

    What about the terms: ” OK kid, don’t be a smart ass” and, Don’t get smart with me kid. Both staples of US gangster movies – or am I out of date?

    I understand smart ass to be American slang. Not so?

    In Britlish “smart” is most usually, I think, used for someone’s appearance, but can be used to mean clever or a “quick study”. (How about a NOOAs.section?)

    And in Britlish we have “smarty pants” or “smart aleck” for someone who thinks themselves “clever” and obnoxiously so. But then is not smart aleck an Americanism?

    The issue is clouded because US movie and TV has influenced Britlish post-War, and so many US expressions were adopted and adapted.and have become NOOAs.

  12. John: In U.S., smart-ass, smart aleck=wise-ass, wise guy. We also have “wise-crack.”

    Hence, in U.S., “smart” more or less equals “wise.” And both definitely have a sense (as seen in all the above expressions) of being too smart/wise for your own good, being smart/wise in an inappropriately disrespectful, self-satisfied, overreaching way.

    But as I said earlier, “smart” is most commonly used in a straightforward way: “He is a smart guy,” “I like to work with smart people,” “he isn’t very smart,” etc. I sense this is pretty close to the way Brits use “clever.”

  13. John: “Smarty pants” is a common expression in American English, too, although it sounds a bit childish and is more often used in a joking way.

  14. ‘“smart” is most commonly used in a straightforward way: “He is a smart guy,” “I like to work with smart people,” “he isn’t very smart,” etc. I sense this is pretty close to the way Brits use “clever.”’

    Actually, I think we’d probably use “intelligent” for the last two. and “clever” for the first one, “He’s a clever guy”: “clever” has slight overtones in BrE of “too clever for his or your good”, while “intelligent” is entirely neutral.

  15. The word ‘clever’ can also be used in a more equivocal sense, to suggest deviousness or craftiness, as in:

    “‘Twas a clever quibble. Here a garment for it.” (Shakespeare’s Tempest)

    Shakespeare is alluding to the abuse of quibbling to deviously or dishonestly evade the issue of the discussion.

    What a blinder of a blog, Ben!

  16. And was it James Bond who mouthed “the distance between insanity and genius is measured by success”?

  17. One of the most common British uses of clever is in the phrase “too clever by half”, meaning “apt to get yourself into trouble by being just a bit too cunning”. Clever is rarely used in a wholly complimentary way except of a precocious child or an off-the-graph university professor.

  18. If you’re going to use the British tendency to sarcasm to argue that ‘clever’ means ‘not at all clever’ then you’ve just doubled the size of the dictionary. And that’s *such* a smart idea (to make a point).

  19. “We actually use clever less to characterize a person then to describe…” THAN!

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