What is the difference between smart and clever?

As far as I understand the latter is offensive. But the Cambrige Dictionary gives similar definitions of smart and clever.

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    Both words can be used approvingly or insultingly. If you make a smart or clever move it's invariably a good thing. But nobody likes a smart alec or a clever dick. Oct 27, 2011 at 4:05
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    To specifically answer your question you might expand on why did you understood that the latter is offensive?
    – Unreason
    Oct 27, 2011 at 7:53

4 Answers 4


Neither of them is offensive.

Technically, a smart person is an educated person, someone with a lot of knowledge. This knowledge may come from education or experience, but it's there.

A clever person is someone who can figure out almost any situation. It doesn't necessarily mean he has the required knowledge, but he's handy, so he can always solve whatever comes his way.

Should I over-emphasize this, just for the sake of your better understanding the difference, a smart person knows the theory, a clever person knows the practice.

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    I disagree. I don't think either word particularly implies either acquired knowledge or practicality. There are people with one trait and not the other, but someone else might just as easily reverse your words when making that distinction. Oct 27, 2011 at 4:14
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    Well, let's see if someone else disagrees. If so, I will erase my answer.
    – Frantisek
    Oct 27, 2011 at 4:15
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    A clever person knows a tomato is a fruit not a vegetable - a smart person knows not to put it in a fruit salad
    – mgb
    Oct 27, 2011 at 4:24
  • @RiMMERΨ: thank you for your version, please do not erase it :)
    – abc
    Oct 27, 2011 at 7:20
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    Your case is supported by etymologies - while smart was witty, sharp since 13c, clever was a low word that was used in 16c to say that someone is handy or dexterous. For clever the extension to intellect occurred later.
    – Unreason
    Oct 27, 2011 at 7:50

I've noticed that there is a slight difference between typical British and American usage of these words. In the U.S., clever usually implies a certain amount of ingenuity, while smart implies general intelligence or knowledge. There is a feeling of lightness to clever; it is usually used for "little" things like a quick wit in conversation. A typical good student would be referred to as smart, while a trickster might be called clever.

However, in the U.K. it seems more common to use clever to mean either ingenious or generally intelligent. That is, clever is used both for the American sense of clever as well as the American sense of smart. British smart can mean exactly the same as clever, but it seems clever is the preferred term. This relegates smart (in typical use) to something more akin to "wise" or "sensible".

  • thanks for another "negative" interpretation for the positive word in virtue :)
    – abc
    Oct 27, 2011 at 7:25

The two are virtually identical, and in most uses, as strong case could be made for either one. However, clever seems to imply level of originality and imagination, where smart could just be well thought out.

A good example of the difference, is illustrated in this apocryphal story about NASA:

During the space race in the 1960's, NASA was faced with the huge problem of how to write in the vacuum and weightlessness of space. There is an email that makes the rounds stating that NASA spent $1.5 millin dollars developing a "space pen," and that the Russians facing the same problem simply used a pencil.

In the preceding story the Americans are smart and the Russians are clever.

I think because of this difference, clever is the one used sarcastically much more than smart. Similarly to calling someone a genius to imply stupidity.

  • I know it's not the point, but the story about the space pen is not exactly true. Oct 27, 2011 at 7:08
  • I agree with most of this answer, but I disagree with the characterization of using a pencil in space as clever. That makes cleverness seem like just plain common sense. The space pen would be considered an overly clever solution, when the smart thing to do is just use a pencil.
    – John Y
    Oct 27, 2011 at 7:13
  • @Sam: probably you're most close to the truth because when I told to a guy: "You're clever" his reaction was strange (at least without smile) as he would considered it as offensive. And then he suggested to use "smart" instead of "clever".
    – abc
    Oct 27, 2011 at 7:19
  • @JoachimSauer: He did say it was apocryphal.
    – Joren
    Oct 27, 2011 at 12:55
  • @Joren: I know, and the story definitely served the purpose it was used for here (illustrating the use of the words), even if it's not true. My statement should not be interpreted as an attack. I simply wanted to avoid that this story continues to be re-told as a truth. Oct 27, 2011 at 13:04

The difference, the way I see it and emphasized, is that smart always implies intelligence, while clever does not (it implies that something is made in a way that is very effective; which can directly imply intelligence).

This is supported by etymologies and dictionaries.

Smart comes from sharp referring to wit, and this meaning is mostly kept. However these days in BrE the sense of BrE neat/AmE sharp and attractive seems to be prevalent and the meaning of intelligent is perceived as Americanism. This dictionary entry seems quite good.

Clever on the other hand comes from a low word that comes from handy, dexterous. Although not a primary meaning of the word, it did not get lost, as it is possible to say that someone has clever hands, meaning skillful hands; where saying that someone has smart hands would need to be explained by the context. Also, see the dictionary.

Here are some examples where you can not substitute clever with smart

I have a clever place to hide a car.
Bill's very clever with his hands. The mechanism is very clever.

Although there is a significant difference between BrE and AmE I believe that in recent years the meanings are getting closer to each other and this particularly due to many new clever gadgets and especially smart devices.

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    If a mechanism is clever, that means it's an ingenious design. If a mechanism is smart, that means the mechanism itself applies some kind of reasoning to the problem it is designed to solve.
    – Joren
    Oct 27, 2011 at 12:58
  • @Joren, yes that's why it is listed under examples (though as I said, and especially with smart phones, bombs and other devices; it is ingenious design that makes it possible for the device to apply reasoning; still you can have clever designs or even details of designs on a mechanism that does not apply any reasoning; though you might call that smart, too)
    – Unreason
    Oct 27, 2011 at 13:03

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