Two very similar expressions yet quite opposite connotations. Wise man is an older phrase but wise guy is a newer one.

I found two possible connections to wise man. There is the surname Wiseman which is a long-established surname of Anglo-Saxon origin, and derives from the Olde English pre 7th Century "wys", meaning "wise", and "mann", a man, and was originally given as a nickname to a wise and learned man, perhaps one who was regularly consulted by other village inhabitants on matters pertaining to law or business transactions.1

Wise men is also mentioned as another name for biblical magi who were, in the Gospel of Matthew and Christian tradition, a group of distinguished foreigners who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.2

Opposite connotations of the words from thefreedictionary:

wise man: a sage / a wise and trusted guide and advisor

wise guy: a smart aleck / a person who is given to making conceited, sardonic, or insolent comments

Etymonline says:

Wise man was in Old English. Wise guy is attested from 1896, American English...

  • How do these two phrases happen to have different connotations (one positive, other negative)?
  • Is it possible to find an explanation regarding to their origins?

1 http://www.surnamedb.com/Surname/Wiseman
2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_Magi

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    '''as do 'smart cookie' and 'smart aleck'. Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 18:51
  • I've heard "smart cookie" used both straight and sarcastically, but "smart aleck" only sarcastically. Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 18:52
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    Because language is unpredictable. Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 21:43
  • You are not the first to ask this question. Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 2:58
  • Oh, a wise guy, eh?
    – ermanen
    Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 3:08

3 Answers 3


The "wise" in "wise guy" is sarcastic. The surface meaning of "wise guy" is synonymous to "wise man," but in actual usage "wise guy" ALWAYS refers to someone who is making a sardonic comment, implying that he (thinks he) is somehow smarter than others.

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    Thanks for the answer. But how did "wise guy" emerge as a sarcastic usage? Why not "wise man" itself used sarcastically? Is it related to the difference between "man" and "guy" also?
    – ermanen
    Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 18:39
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    That would be my guess - that the tone of "guy" is dissonant with the whole idea of "wise," and so using the phrase "wise guy" conveys sarcasm. But that seems like a pretty sophisticated research question to me. Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 18:43
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    And let's not forget the "wise guy" that is another name for a mob thug. Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 19:02
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    'Guy' has long been used in America as a convivial term for 'man' and nowadays 'woman'. The sense is far more recent in Britain. For me, a 'Guy' is an effigy of Guido Fawkes, Roman Catholic conspirator at the centre of the Gunpowder Plot, to blow up Parliament, of 1605. Every 5th November children throw his effigy on bonfires and celebrate with firworks. That will always remain with me the principal association with the word 'guy'. 'Always remember the fifth of November/For gunpowder, treason and plot/ I see no reason/ Why gunpowder season/ Should ever be forgot. (Children's rhyme)
    – WS2
    Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 20:39
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    I'd suggest that 'guy' is/was just more commonly used than 'man'. Therefore 'wise guy' would be used more than 'wise man', and thus it would be more susceptible to semantic change. As 'wise guy' was more and more commonly used sarcastically to imply the opposite, speakers would have no choice but to reach back and use the less colloquial 'wise man' to differentiate. All conjecture, of course.
    – Karl
    Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 23:09

For the same reason that "digital computing" doesn't mean counting on your fingers. English expressions grow out of usage, not logic or etymology.

  • More examples along the same lines: "terrific" vs. "terrible"; "awesome" vs. "awful"; and, if you're willing to accept etymologies from Greek and Latin simultaneously, "chronic" vs. "temporary". Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 3:41

An etymological explanation might be that the word wise is related to the word wit. (The OED traces both back to the Indo-European root weid-.) One sense of wit is a synonym of wisdom or intelligence, but the other sense is "a talent for banter or persiflage" (see http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wit). So, perhaps the sense of wise as in wise guy, wiseacre, crack wise, etc., can be thought of as essentially a variation on this sense of wit. In other words, what are now two words are still not perfectly differentiated.

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