Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Smart Money

This phrase, for me, has over the decades come to be an all-purpose abbreviation for amoral attitudes toward reality—not because intelligence, and therefore the intelligent deployment of resources, not least money, is repugnant as such but because the phrase has always implied to me special knowledge applied for personal gain with the implication that a zero-sum game is in progress and, therefore, the gain of the smart fellow is someone else’s loss. Exploitive. The phrase also implies a relatively short time span, always. Thus it’s a now sort of thing—not the slow, laborious accumulation of acorns to get through a long, long winter.

The phrase arose this morning as Brigitte and I contemplated a pie chart showing the indebtedness of the United States, and “smart money” popped into my mind spontaneously. I went to look up the origins of the phrase. Online Etymology Dictionary finds it used first in 1926 to mean “money bet by those in the know”—thus a kind of “insider trading.” Another aspect of it, not referred to in the dictionary—but I encountered it throughout my years in business—is the use of “other people’s money” rather than your own, which people even abbreviated as OPM, always with a bit of a sly grin. Therefore huge U.S. debts to foreign sources, amounting to $25 trillion, probably triggered the abbreviation, OPM, and in turn “smart money.”

What I hadn’t realized is that this same phrase had been used to mean something quite different in the seventeenth century, namely “‘money paid to sailors, soldiers, workers, etc., who have been disabled while on the job’ (1690s)”. In this phrase, the word “smart” refers to the verb, namely to hurt, to smart. Money for suffering, in other words. This got me interested in the origins of to smart. Turns out that the verb derives from the West Germanic root smert-. Knowing German well, the word schmerzen, to hurt, immediately came to mind.

Now my mind put two things together. The overlaid hurt and the witty meanings of smart—and the short-term nature of smart money dealings. And it occurred to me that smart money activities, when viewed in the long term, ultimately always produce—pain.

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