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What does it mean to be a sharp cookie? Is it a compliment (because I've never heard of sharp cookie)?

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    Have you googled it? I found it in urban dictionary and wiktionary
    – Tlacenka
    Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 12:44
  • A far more common collocation is a smart cookie (1220 hits in Google Books, compared to just 333 for a sharp cookie). But definitions for both forms are easily found online even if you've never encountered usages like a tough cookie before. Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 13:02
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    "Sharp cookie"! That's hilarious. I have these images of chocolate chip cookies honed like a razor. Angry cookies to be sure! I think you're muddling calling someone "one smart cookie" and calling someone "sharp." Both expressions comment on an individual's intelligence, albeit in slightly different ways. The former refers to someone's knowledge base, giving them credit for knowing a lot. The latter refers to cleverness, a mental quickness or an overall aptitude. "Sharp cookie," indeed! Now I will go to bed thinking of violent baked goods. Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 4:48

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It is not a new expression, according to Ngram it has been used from the '40s. One of the few references available says: (hardly a compliment I'd say)

Sharp cookie: (Wiktionary)

  • (idiomatic) One who is intelligent, bright, or sharp; especially, one who can identify attempts to deceive or mislead.

    • She's a sharp cookie and will have no trouble seeing a sales pitch for what it is.

The following extract from World Association of International Studies adds:

  • Randy Black writes: In response to WAIS editor-in-chief John Eipper's post, Deborah Dupire-Nelson commented in her 10 June post that she was having a tough time of it finding a definition of one sharp cookie and its origin.

  • It's my impression that calling anyone sharp is a compliment and that the cookie part of it goes back to the days when we referred to others as cookie, toots, babe, and other diminutive, affectionate terms. In short, being one sharp, or smart cookie is very high praise. One can also be one tough cookie.

  • In any event, the idiomatic expression means: One who is intelligent, bright, or sharp; especially, one who can identify attempts to deceive or mislead.

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The meaning is clear, perhaps, but tracing the origin is challenging. Tough cookies are almost as common as sharp and smart cookies, suggesting the key to the etymology lies in tracing the usage of 'cookie' referring to a person. OED chases it back to the 1920's in the US, and suggests that it associated with both women (1920 Colliers Magazine: That girlfriend of yours is a cookie) and men (1942 American Mercury Magazine: Just about the toughest cookie ever born.)

None of the professions that bear the name cookie seem likely candidates - noting that they include not just chefs, but also (according to the Cassell Dictionary of Slang) those who 'cook' drugs or 'books' (crooked accountants). A borrowed foreign word, perhaps Yiddish, is a possibility - but I don't have the resources to follow that through. Tracing back roots in English might lead to 'cuck' (meaning excreta, hence 'cack'), but it doesn't seem to have been in common use for at least a couple of hundred years, and the modern usage (particularly in respect of females) doesn't seem to fit the bill. It is possible that a sharp cookie could refer to a 'clever' crooked accountant (or bookmaker), but again the usual sense is complimentary rather than derogatory.

I think we're left with the weight of (absence of confounding) evidence favouring a derivation from the baked cookie (somehow I'm thinking Yiddish/New York culture again..). A girl could be a 'sweet cookie', and a man could be 'hard-baked' or tough cookie, and somewhere in there might also belong the 'smart' or 'sharp' cookie. It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that the 'smart cookie' may have had something to do with the fortune cookie (see Wikipedia for the history of the fortune cookie) which came into being in the 1890's or early 1900's.

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