Don't Be Afraid to Own Booksmart

"Book-smart" implies a lack of worldliness. Says who?

We’ve gotten the question more than a few times, and so perhaps you’re wondering, too, how we came to call ourselves Booksmart Studios. Is it a boast? A bit of self-deprecating humor? It can be either, after all, since book-smart encompasses both compliment and criticism. It’s not quite clear how the word managed to pull off such an unlikely linguistic trick, since it appears to have been born that way about a century ago. I can explain.

In the mid-1920s, journalist Sam Hellman wrote a series of satirical sketches — in the form of “conversations” between two unsophisticated friends musing about thorny topics — that were syndicated by the New York Tribune. Hellman would go on to write all or part of more than 40 Hollywood movies, including a number of Shirley Temple vehicles and the story on which director John Ford based his 1946 classic My Darling Clementine, which culminates in the Gunfight at the OK Corral and earned a spot in the National Film Registry.

A native of San Francisco who graduated from the University of California with a professed penchant for the classics, Hellman was equally at ease writing roughhewn lawmen on the Western frontier as he was well-bred nobles in early rom-coms. But it was his use of colloquial American grammar and slang in his many invented vignettes that became his “bread and meat,” as the New York Times put it. “In his humorous stories,” said the Saturday Evening Post, “witty commoners with crude dialect dress each other down in farcical situations.”

Which is more or less what happens in those “conversations” between “Twin” Higgins and his pal “High Dome” Finnegan. In one from August of 1924 — “Twin Gives a Little Free Abvice About College” (and, yes, it is spelled that way) — Higgins mentions that he has to advise (or abvise, as it were) his wife’s nephew on whether or not “he should oughta go to college or go to work,” never mind that Higgins is hardly qualified to be doling out such abvice.

Finnegan, no more equipped than Higgins to have an opinion, thinks the boy should indeed go off to college, not to become learned, however, but to become independent:

I've seen the kid and what he needs most is to learn how to stand on his own dogs. The way he sized up to me he's been tucked in the hay every night and his mamma’s been kissing the bruise on his knee. ... As a matter of facts I thinks it’s a mistake to send any lad to a college within five hundred miles of where he's been brung up.

There are only two things one can learn in college, Finnegan explains:

… how to think straight and how to get along with other men, and the last one’s the best bet of all. Did you ever notice that the university graduates that cleans up after they gets out ain’t the fellers that stuck in their rooms and oiled the midnight burns … you gotta remember, bimbo, that the big money in this life don’t go to the book-smart babies: it goes to the lads that can make other guys do their stuff.

And just like that, from the mouth of a fictional broadsheet bullshitter, ungrammatical and unrefined, out pops what is currently the oldest example of the word book-smart. Sam Hellman almost certainly did not conceive the term — he was known for capturing the vernacular, not coining it — which means it probably predates 1924 by years or even decades, though we’ll never know for sure unless someone finds an earlier written or recorded example.

What is clear, even from the word’s infancy, is its use as a pejorative. Inherent within book-smart is a semantic counterpoint to knowledge or know-how that is presumed to be far more valuable. In Emma Gelders Sterne’s 1957 biography of the civil rights activist Mary MacLeod Bethune, one of Bethune’s sisters exclaims, “You might be book smart … but you don’t seem to have no common sense at all.” During an interview in the early 1980s, Hawaii state judge Arthur S.K. Fong commended the quality of students then entering the legal profession, one caveat being “that although many of them are book smart, they lack common sense.”

These are typical of how book-smart is used, as a quality that is somehow at odds with the savvier common sense, or its hard-boiled cousin street smarts, both more pragmatic and therefore useful. The Oxford English Dictionary picks up on this, defining book-smart as “having knowledge acquired from books or study; scholarly, bookish; frequently implying lack of common sense or worldliness.”

Book-smart, then, is one of those odd words that elevates as it diminishes. It praises as it denigrates, adds as it subtracts. As a studious kid who venerated books, the compactness with which they hold information and wisdom and the efficiency with which they communicate, I proudly took ownership of book-smart at a young age. As an older student, who “oiled the midnight burns” as our friend Finnegan would say, I retained ownership and bristled at the anti-intellectual strain that runs through our political discourse. And as a father who enjoys nothing more in this life than taking turns reading aloud with his son from a 15-book series on warring dragon tribes, I hold that ownership close to my heart.

There’s a world in which book-smart — embracing erudition and expertise and, hell yes, scientific consensus — complements street-smart. Where they are not magnetic opposites, but rather live comfortably, side-by-side, in the same house and share chores. That’s how the Almanac of American Politics viewed New York mayor Ed Koch in the 1980s, both “book smart and street smart, capable of dazzling urban ethnologists and of giving a heckler the raspberry.” Those of us who grew up with him on the local news, night after night, certainly thought of him that way.

And so I take ownership of book-smart yet again. Scholarly? Count me in. Lack of worldliness? Says you, heckling OED. Oh, and what’s that sound you hear? Damn right it’s a raspberry. Or, as Mayor Koch would call it, a Bronx cheer.

  • Early 20th-century artist Victor Arnautoff is the subject of a heated controversy over his artwork — on the walls of a public high school in San Francisco. Some students, parents and community members find his murals traumatizing and want them “painted over” or removed. Listen to the full story on Episode 1 of BanishedWhitewashing History? — with host Amna Khalid.

  • Have you heard the trailer for Bully Pulpit with Bob Garfield? Check it out. And then get excited, because Bob’s first episode drops tomorrow!