Smarm: the complete guide

smarm Brit. informal. 1. to flatten (the hair, etc) with cream or grease. 2. to ingratiate oneself (with). [C19: of unknown origin] smarmy obsequiously flattering or unpleasantly suave - Collins English Dictionary
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Ingratiating, crawling, fawning, servile, obsequious, sycophantic, suave, smooth, oily, unctuous. What a change a new haircut can make. Those are the words listed in Chambers Combined Dictionary Thesaurus as synonyms for "smarmy", the currently fashionable epithet for Tony Blair, who only recently was being described as "dictatorial".

Occurrences of the word "smarmy" in our database of national newspapers include 21 sightings in the vicinity of "Blair". Smarmy scores for other politicians include eight for John Major, six for Heseltine, four for Howard, three each for Thatcher and Kenneth Clarke, two for Portillo, and one each for Bottomley and Prescott. Even "Monkhouse" only scores nine on the smarmy scale. Furthermore, while those scores have been accumulated over three years, Blair's smarminess has mainly happened in the past few weeks. Until the end of September, his total was only seven, with 14 additional sightings since 1 October.

The rise in smarmy Blair has coincided with a sudden decline in dictatorial Blair. In July alone, the database shows 14 instances of "dictatorial" in the same paragraph as "Blair", with another five in August and eight in September. Yet since 1 October there has been only one more sighting. April may be the cruellest month, but October and November are the smarmiest.

"Smarmy" is not among the 38 words or phrases in Erskine May's list of unparliamentary expressions. You cannot call an Honorable Member a "cad", "coward" or "criminal", nor even a "cheeky young pup" in the House of Commons without expecting the Chair to intervene, but you might get away with "smarmy" - unless, of course, the Speaker considered it no better than "pecksniffian cant" which was deemed to be unparliamentary in 1928.

"Smarmy", according to the Oxford English Dictionary, dates back to 1909 as an adjectival form of the word "smarm" or "smalm" which had been around for 100 years. Originally just a verb for smoothing, especially of hair, its meaning gradually moved to include the implication of a real smoothie. Its colloquial nature seems to have prevented it entering the more respectable dictionaries of quotations. We found no reference in Antony Jay's Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations, or Jonathan Green's Dictionary of Insulting Quotations, though a trawl through the latter suggests that the allegedly smarmy Mr Blair is only carrying on a long and noble British tradition. Nietzsche, in 1889, said: "The English are the people of consummate cant," while in 1953 the East German Communist Party included "paralytic sycophants" and "carrion-eating servile imitators" among the approved terms of abuse for the British. For an accusation of pure smarm, however, surely no one can outdo Disraeli's condemnation of Sir Robert Peel: "The Right Honorable Gentleman's smile is like the silver fittings on a coffin." There's one for the Blair-bashers.

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