Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Boss, put a kibosh on that smart alec!

Boss, put a kibosh
on that smart alec!

Some etymologies are milquetoast while others are just plain weird.

Boss entered English in the 1640s in America. Though its Dutch source word baas, meant master, it’s believed that boss may have come into use in an attempt to make a distinction between master of a slave & master of a hired worker.  The Dutch term appears to have come from the Old High German terms, baes, uncle, & basa, aunt. The slang term of the 1950s & ‘60s, meaning excellent, was actually the rebirth of a slang use of boss in the 1880s.

Etymologists argue over the origins of the term kibosh. Dickens (at the tender age of 24) introduced the term to English readers in 1836 as kye-bosk. Though most etymologists agree that it sounds as though it should have Yiddish roots, the most likely origin appears to be the Gaelic term, cie bash, pronounced ky-bosh. This term refers to the black skullcap worn by judges &/or executioners when pronouncing or performing the death penalty, thus the term, to put the kibosh on.

Unlike boss & kibosh, smart alec (or aleck) has a wonderfully clear origin. Alec Hoag was a con man, misogynist, &/or pimp who – when his wife, Melinda, was “distracting” a client --  would sneak through a specially designed secret panel in the room to pilfer her client’s wallet, watch, & other valuables. Apparently he used some of these valuables to buy off local law enforcement for some time, making a good deal of money & earning the nickname Smart Alec. I find a certain poetic justice in the fact that smart alecs tend to perceive themselves as smart, while the rest of us find them downright offensive.

Good followers, please leave a comment with your thoughts regarding smart alecs, bosses & kibosh.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, & the OED.


  1. I love it when common phrases are based on real people. When the first person who was called a smart Alec who was not that particular smart Alec he probably knew to whom it referred. Eventually no one did but it lived on. So interesting. All the times I used the term I never once wondered who the hell Alec was. Interesting.

  2. A totally boss post, Mr. Monger! I knew about kibosh, because I'd looked it up myself to solve a question about whether it was Yiddish (I'd always thought it was) But I sure didn't know that boss once meant "aunt". Although I had an aunt who certainly thought the were the same...

    And like Christine, I'm glad to have been introduced to the real Alec!

  3. Ahoy Anne & Christine,
    Anne, I can't believe you had a minute in this nutty week to read about bossy aunts, Alecs & kiboshing. Thanks. Christine, I'm guessing there are tons of "Alecs" behind many of the terms we sling around all the time.