One meaning and usage of smear as a noun, from M-W, is:

usually unsubstantiated charge or accusation against a person or organization — often used attributively.

  • a smear campaign
  • a smear job

Etymonline suggests its early usages:

Figurative sense of "assault a public reputation with unsubstantiated charges" is from 1879.

but it does not say where the "unsubstantiated" sense of the term come from.

So, how did the figurative meaning, especially in the unsubstantiated sense, evolve from the literal definition of the term?

  • 4
    A well-presented question. I'm guessing that this will take really serious research, 240, and may well not get the answer it deserves. May 23, 2019 at 11:18

5 Answers 5


Early metaphorical use of 'a smear' and 'political smear'

The earliest match that I find of "a smear" used in the sense of a besmirching of [one's] reputation appears in an untitled item in the Terre Haute [Indiana] Weekly Gazette (January 9, 1879):

Hiram Grant's reception in Ireland can hardly be called a success. It is about time he ceased traveling in part as Government expense, and he has, perhaps, traveled abroad as much as it is proper on the credit and reputation of this country, his connection with which, as President, is a smear of dirt in the recollection of all honest men.

Here, the "smear of dirt" is in the recollection of honest men, but it is on the connection of Hiram [better known as "Ulysses S."] Grant with the country and—by extension—its credit and reputation. Evidently, the newspaper is alluding to various scandals that plagued Grant's administration, which ended in 1877. The sense is not of an inaccurate characterization or imputation, but of a point of justified embarrassment or disgrace.

A somewhat similar instance in an Australian newspaper appears in an untitled item in the [Adelaide] South Australian Advertiser (August 17, 1885):

To Lord Granville's peremptory demand that Russia should withdraw from the places which she had illegally seized the insolent reply was sent that Russia could cot retire, as it would injure her prestige. Therefore the honor of England had to be trampled upon, and the territory of her ally violated without redress, in order that Russian prestige might escape a smear. Much as the British character resents anything wearing the semblance of bluster in the utterances of public men, or proceedings calculated to give needless offence to other nations, the manly determination of Lord Salisbury to act in complete indifference to European combinations will be generally applauded.

Again, the smear is closer in sense to a reputational stain or blemish than to a false claim about one's conduct.

There is also this interesting presentation of an editorial spat between the Vermont Phoenix and the Brattleboro Reformer, reported in the Bennington [Vermont] Evening Banner (July 17, 1906):

We do not remember having seen such a smear in the editorial columns of our neighbor since—well, in a long time. What is there to prevent a blacksmith, livery stable employee, fish dealer, ex-bartender, lunch room proprietor, shoe repairer, cigar salesman, grain sacker, hack driver, or barber from being as good a citizen as a "prominent or professional man with large interests"? If the Phoenix considers such tactics of assistance to the Proctor cause its judgment is certainly warped.—Brattleboro Reformer.

It's unclear whether the "smear" in this case refers to a perceived attempt by the Vermont Phoenix to insult to the reputations of the tradesman delegates from Brattleboro or to a general waste of ink by the Phoenix on a muddled thesis.

A related usage is the compound of "a blot and a smear," a metaphor taken from writing with pen and ink. Two relevant earlier instances of this expression occur, first, in an untitled item in the [Stanford, Kentucky] Interior Journal (October 24, 1879):

The split from the Democratic party by faction led by John Kelly was made to defeat the Democratic ticket this time, but reports from that state [New York] go to prove that it will be unsuccessful and that Gov. Robinson will be his own successor in office. The Kelley meanness has fired the true blue Democrats to action, and there will be nothing left of Kelly and his Tammany crowd after the election but a blot and a smear.

The instance of "a blot and a smear" here seems to refer to an unattractive residue of something other wise obliterated.

But something quite different is suggested in "Easy Divorces Not for Golden State" in the Sacramento [California] Union (March 27, 1911):

Senator Bell of Pasadena was opposed to the policy of California becoming a Mecca, for the mis-married. "Who would go to Reno [Nevada] when they could come to California?" inquired the senator, and continued: "If we should pass this bill every aspiring divorcee in the country would come flocking to California. Some person would establish a colony, such a colony as the world has never known, for the attractions of the state would bring the merry martyrs of marriage from all parts of the nation, causing a blot and a smear on the reputation of the state."

Here "a blot and a smear" refers to an unsightly marring of something otherwise pure and honorable, much as in the "a smear of dirt" example from January 1879.

The earliest match for "political smear" that I could find is in the subtitle to "Republicans to Probe Scandal" in the Champaign [Illinois] Daily News (January 18, 1916):

Political "Smear" to Be Investigated Before Action Is Taken on Preparedness

But since the situation involves Republican congressmen investigating possible improprieties by a Democratic administration, the "smear" again seems to refer to a stain on the honor of the national defense program, not to a groundless effort to discredit that program.

Another longer expression of interest, "a smear gang," first appears in "Hurley Attacks Liberty League," in the Madera [California] Tribune (August 290, 1934):

Former Secretary of War Patrick J, Hurley today criticized sharply the newly formed American liberty league and charged it was financed by the same group that led "the Smear-Hoover campaign."

"I have never joined a Smear gang." said former President Hoover’s cabinet member.

Hurley did not identify the "Smear Hoover" leaders to whom he referred. It was recalled, however, that Jouett Shouse, President of the league, was executive head of the Democratic national committee during the Hoover administration when Republican leaders complained that the committee’s publicity campaign was unfair.

And at long last, a relevant instance of the unadorned phrase "a smear" appears in "Washington Letter," in the Sausalito [California] News (October 2, 1936):

The campaigners have no way of measuring the effects of a smear which was splashed around after [Al] Smith's speech at the Liberty League dinner when he was allied with the DuPonts and big money men.

Very early metaphorical use of 'to smear'

Instances in which the verb form of smear in the sense of libelous falsehoods or more general political mudslinging appear in various U.S. newspapers at least as early as the 1830s.

From "Things in General" in the [Terre Haute, Indiana] Wabash Courier (July 23, 1835):

These scullions, who are themselves up to the elbows in grease are anxious to smear every opponent who comes within their reach. Noah.

This very brief item expresses the metaphor in terms of smearing grease that is actually on oneself onto someone who was not previously so befouled.

From "Speech of Mr. Powell, of Loudoun, on the Expunging Resolutions, on the 22d of January, 1836" in the [Leesburg, Virginia] Genius of Liberty (February 6, 1836) comes this very modern use of smear:

Sir, Mr. Leigh must be forced to give way before the patriotic efforts of this great Democratic Republican Party of Virginia. How, sir, and for what? By an instruction on their part for Mr. Leigh to do that which they know he cannot consistently do, or to submit to an alternative that they have no right to present to him. They require at his hands, either directly or by implication, to expunge, to obliterate, to smear with the miserable filth of party politics, that journal of the Senate which the Constitution of the United States has declared shall be kept as a record of their proceedings, or to follow the example of his diplomatic predecessor, and throw himself back insultingly upon the people.

From a letter to the editor of the same newspaper (July 16, 1836):

Every event subsequent to the removal having any relation to the matter, fully establishes that the public interest did not require the act, and that it has received much inconvenience and detriment from a measure, the sole intention of which was to castigate the bank for its lack of Executive loyalty—and because the Senate did not approve the course of an Executive, who had dared to effect his purpose by an infraction of the Constitution, it is proposed to smear upon its journal the indelible stain of Jacksonism. A striking evidence that his unjust and arbitrary course towards the bank grew out of his inability to direct its operations, is to be found in his continued wrath and persecuting opposition to it as a state institution.

Here "Jacksonism" is the stain to be smeared, and Andrew Jackson is the smearer.

From "Abuse," in the [Cincinnati, Ohio] Catholic Telegraph and Advocate (April 3, 1852):

During the past two weeks, the Catholics have been abused most thoroughly, collectively and individually, theologically and morally, historically, politically, socially and abominably. ... When we find such extravagant and incessant assaults, mixed with so much intemperate invective, are we not right in attributing it to some uneasiness of conscience, some inherent suspicion that the contradictions of Protestantism are not very satisfactory, and that all this anger which is displayed in the sectarian pulpit and the twaddling press, is only an attempt to lull the soul and comfort it with an imaginary security? It is an easy thing to brag of your beauty when compared with another's, whose face you have taken the precaution to smear with filth.

And from an untitled item in the Dayton [Ohio] Daily Empire (July 31, 1860):

The room was pretty well filled with admirers and worshippers of the man [Cassius M. Clay, "the noted Kentucky agitator" for abolition], and every body in the vicinity seemed anxious to get a sight of him. Among those who came to see and hear him, were many persons who a few years ago would have denounced his principles, and furnished eggs to smear him! "Things is workin.'" If the Abolitionists keep on in the same ratio, it will not be lung until they will have every conservative man in the Republican ranks converted to the true faith, as taught by Clay, Giddings, Brinkerhoff & Co.

The egg smearing in this instance may have been intended literally.

An interesting early counterintuitive instance of smear appears in a letter to the editor of the [Launcestown, Tasmania] Cornwall Chronicle (October 23, 1844), where the smearing is more in the nature of a whitewashing or perhaps a lipsticking of a pig:

SIR,—What a pity it is, Mr. Editor, that self-praise is no honor, for if it were, the committee of the self-styled Mechanics' Institute of this town would be covered with immortal laurels. But is it not false and foolish in the lying Bolter's Rag to smear them over with such fulsome daubing. Does he not know that he is only caricaturing them while he wishes to exalt them.

The daubing is revolting (to the letter writer) but the self-dauber imagines that it makes him more lovely.

It is at least possible that "smearing" in the befouling sense is associated with the contemporaneous U.S. vigilante punishment of tarring and feathering, as described in this item from the [Springfield] Illinois State Journal (October 26, 1854) about such an outrage committed in Ellsworth, Maine:

The ruffians, as soon as they were rid of the Sheriff, came together again and proceeded down the Mount Desert road to a ship yard. Here they took 'the pantaloons also from Mr. Bapst's person, rendering him entirely naked. Before taking off his pantaloons, they lifted him among them, and he perceived one thrusting his hand in his pocket and laying hold of his wallet, in which was something more than $50. He besought that one not to add robbery to his other violence, but the person took his wallet, nor has Mr. Bapst seen it since. " His watch wag taken from him at the time that they first stripped him. Then they proceeded to smear him with tar from head to foot, and afterward covered him with feathers not without, however, in the meantime making some disgusting personal assaults, and using various degrees of foul language.

Relevant instances from the 1870s and after of 'to smear' and 'smear campaign'

After several decades of infrequent usage, a number of examples of "to smear" in the sense of "to assault a public reputation" appear during the 1870s. From "The Military Ring," in Harper's Weekly (March 23, 1872):

Those who in the investigation of frauds in administration seem much more anxious to smear the President than to punish guilty agents ought to consider whether by so clear an exhibition of personal animosity they do not harm the cause of simple, honest reform ...

From an untitled item in the Weekly [Troy] Kansas Chief (October 24, 1872):

Mart. Bowers takes exceptions to our calling him a carpet-bagger. To tell the truth, we would not have thought of it, had not the idea been suggested to us, not over three weeks ago, by the very men who are now upholding his course—the men who used to smear him all over with foul gobs of nastiness, and whom he used to smear with ditto.

This same newspaper, in "A Liar Is Known by the Lies He Tells" (September 26, 1872), uses a boil as the thing metaphorically being smeared:

But the boil has at length come to a head; they have pricked it, and the nasty matter is let out. The worst it can now do, is attempt to smear and defile the garments of those who have squeezed it out of the party.

Less grotesque is this example from the Donaldsville [Louisiana] Chief (June 26, 1875):

We do not hesitate to express the belief that among the journalists of New Orleans the Republican is almost universally considered the ablest and best edited paper in the State. In our estimation it stands at the head of the Southern press, and we are sorry to see a co-worker in the Republican cause so eager to outstrip the virulent organs of Democracy in attempting to smear the fairly won laurels of a natural ally with the slime of vituperation. We have enough to contend against without rending each other, brethren.

And this similar example from "It Didn't Stick," in the Findlay [Ohio] Jeffersonian (December 3, 1875):

The ringsters who threw mud at Secretary Bristow, failed in their attempt to smear him over with the slime that covers their own carcasses. It didn't stick. Mr. Bristow speaks out in tones and in language that is impossible to be misunderstood. He means business in his war on the "Crooked Whiskyists," and don't propose to let "any guilty man escape."

And this one from "The Constitutional Convention Again," in the [Alexandria] Louisiana Democrat (August 22, 1877):

Our article upon this subject of week before last has given umbrage to The Daily City Item, and necessitates our referring to the question again. We accord the Item the utmost freedom of opinion in the matter, and the perfect right to differ with us—nay, even to criticise our opinions as expressed in the article referred to; but it ha gone outside of the range of legitimate criticism, and seen fit to impugn our motives in opposing the call of a Convention to frame a new Constitution entire. We have no desire or inclination to enter into a war of words with the Item, as we fear that its recent experience with the Times has "got its hand in" and that it would have the advantage of us in that species of choice literature, that seeks rather to smear an opponent with slime than to answer arguments fairly stated.

The metaphor in these three examples is explicitly smearing with slime, a strikingly popular understanding of what smearing involved during the 1870s.

In much the same vein, though some 55 years later, from an untitled item in the Craig [Colorado] Empire Courier (November 2, 1932):

Alva Adams was nominated by the Democrats through the use at the last minute of a "Smear Barnett with Oil" campaign for which Mr. Adams later denied responsibility. He is now attempting to "smear Schuyler" with the same tar. An analysis of the oil charges against Schuyler indicates that he was retained as attorney for Blackmer and others implicated in the oil deals. If that constitute guilt then we haven't an experienced attorney in Colorado who is not implicated in some questionable practice.

This is the earliest example of the concept of a "smear ... campaign" that I've been able to find. We've already seen an instance of "smear Hoover campaign" from 1934.

The more compact phrase "smear campaign" appears in "Our Political Pessimist," in the [Healdsburg, California] Sotoyome Scimitar (July 29, 1937):

Next year promises to bring a comparatively new development—the "smear campaign", given its first tryout last year by the Donihue assembly investigating committee. Both sides are investigating now—Republicans and Democrats and fractions within both parties—and wire-tapping has replaced wire-pulling as the favorite sport of politics.


The verb smear in the sense of "falsely or dishonestly besmirch"—as opposed to "dishonor, whether justly or not"—has been around in U.S. English since at least the 1830s, although its use in the popular press seems to have been rather sporadic until the 1870s. Use of smear as a noun in a similar sense involving strategic recourse to unsubstantiated accusations appears to be far more recent than use of smear as a noun in the sense of a stain on one's honor that might or might not be justified.

As for what material the metaphorical smear originally consisted of, candidates through the years have included grease, filth, the stain of Jacksonism, a boil, vile gobs of nastiness, slime, dirt, eggs, mud, oil, tar, and ink. Each of these substances has with its own constellation of allusive reference points and thus its own metaphorical strengths as a smearing material. The very range and variety of potentially suitable substances may have broadened the appeal of the expression.

  • 1
    I do not agree with this: That "falsely or dishonestly besmirch" [a reputation is besmriched, no need to use more adjectives] is any different from: "dishonor, whether justly or not". dishonor and besmirch (a reputation) are the same thing.
    – Lambie
    May 27, 2019 at 20:52
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    Well, @Lambie, you're wrong about every part of that except (presumably) your opinion, so what do you expect him to do about it?
    – lly
    May 28, 2019 at 15:12
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    @vectory. I deleted my own comment on 'Schmiere stehen' and a reference to modern German because I figured it was a shot in the dark. But there's also the Yiddish 'schmiergeld' as bribery money which is testified in English as smear gelt in 1785 . It's still speculation, but there might at least be some influence from smear in the sense of bribery -- perhaps cross-fertilizing with the other nuances of smear to become a general (false) accusation of bribery and corruption.
    – S Conroy
    Jun 1, 2019 at 13:03
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    @SConroy it's a bit of a meme that high ranking officials may be lead into corruption only to compromise their integrity with the implicit thread of revelation. Seeing that revelation as smearing makes a bunch of sense.
    – vectory
    Jun 1, 2019 at 13:07
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    There's an article In Life 1940, 21 October that uses both senses of smear in one sentence. I think it gives support to your answer in that it shows a relatively direct link between literal and metaphorical senses of 'smear'. "But Democratic politicians were running their own smear campaign, using instead of vegetables the charge that „a vote for Wilkie is a vote for Hitler.“
    – S Conroy
    Jun 2, 2019 at 15:35

How did it evolve? I suspect the word has always carried the implication of "slander" - the word "smear" naturally lends itself to meaning "apply muck to (a previously clean thing)" as opposed to "reveal as (already) mucky".

Similar words like "sully", "soil", or "blacken" also carry the figurative connotation, in relation to a reputation, that the damage inflicted is not necessarily deserved or justified.

When accusations are justified, we tend to refer to the person themselves, rather than their reputation as a separate thing.

A person may have their character "blackened" (when the implication is of false accusations), but will be themselves "accused" or "criticised" (when the implication is of truth).

  • Hi, Steve. In Sven Yargs, words, "Your answer seems to be heavily weighted toward personal opinion as opposed to objective analysis—but this site especially prizes answers that have an identifiable basis in verifiable fact rather than just opinion. Please consider strengthening your answer by citing some independent authority that draws the same general conclusion that you do with regard to [this/these] usage/s. Thanks!" May 23, 2019 at 14:04
  • @EdwinAshworth, I've provided objective analysis - examination of the metaphor apparently in use, examination of similar metaphorical words and their senses, and examination of contrasting usage of words which have the opposite subtlety to the one identified by the OP. The question, after all, was "how did the sense of the word evolve?".
    – Steve
    May 23, 2019 at 14:45
  • I'm sorry, but ' identifiable basis in verifiable fact rather than just [what may be mere] opinion' is seen in the upvoted answer below (Green's Dictionary of Slang, and the statement 'each chronological iteration is accompanied by drop-down examples of its usage in that time period') but not in your answer. May 23, 2019 at 14:52
  • @EdwinAshworth, but we have already established that Green's is both incomplete chronologically, and it doesn't even attempt to answer the question the OP actually had, which was why the word gained the connotation of "false accusation" (he did not seem to show much interest merely in knowing when it first became a popular sense). Indeed, that poster says "but as usual in the the drift of spoken to written language one can only surmise the how and why", and that is exactly the question!
    – Steve
    May 23, 2019 at 14:58
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    @EdwinAshworth, I can't see any comment from "tchrist". I don't deny the value of a documented reference. I simply say that what you say is a "good answer" is one that quoted authority at cross purpose to the question, and then asserted that any proper answer could "only be surmised". In terms of what I had to say, I probably would have posted only as a comment, but space and formatting is then limited - if a better or more authoritative answer can be arrived at for this question then it will no doubt float up above mine, and mine will be left as a mere footnote.
    – Steve
    May 23, 2019 at 15:32

From Green's Dictionary of Slang: smear

  • (orig. US) to knock unconscious, to beat up, to hit; thus smearing n., a beating.
  • (US) to defeat, to trounce. 1915
  • (US) to fine. 1920
  • to kill, to murder. 1927
  • (US) to bribe. 1933
  • to slander to cause trouble for someone by discrediting their reputation. 1938

From 'to physically hit', ''to kill, then to the figurative as posed in your question. The transition was early in the 20th C. America, but as usual in the the drift of spoken to written language one can only surmise the how and why.

As in:

  • 1938 [US] R. Chandler ‘The King in Yellow’ in Spanish Blood: People who smear women in order to cover up a revenge murder.

  • 1949 [US] R. Chandler Little Sister: The cops couldn’t find out without smearing Miss Weld.

The OED makes a distinction in the evolution of the figurative sence:

figurative. (a) Chiefly const. with, and usually implying something base or discreditable; (b) (without const.), to attempt to discredit (a reputation, etc.) (colloquial, orig. U.S.).

My sense is 'discredit' is similar the the requested 'unsubstantiated'. The dictionary cites the following under (b) of the definition occurring:

1936 W. Irwin Propaganda & News xxii. 292 When the Republicans began calling this line of attack the ‘smear Hoover’ campaign, Michelson..faced the microphone with a masterpiece of ingenious invective.

Could Etymonline be fuzzy on the date when 'unsubstantiated charges' and smear became very synonymous? Green's DS and the OED are in concurrence on the transition and its dates.

  • A good reference. I assume that the Green's dates are the earliest examples in print that they could find. May 23, 2019 at 14:10
  • @EdwinAshworth correct ... each chronological iteration is accompanied by drop-down examples of its usage in that time period
    – lbf
    May 23, 2019 at 14:16
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    Thanks, but I don't see how that explains the "unsubstantiated" sense of the term which was used in that sense much earlier than GDS suggests as reported by Etymonline.
    – user 66974
    May 23, 2019 at 14:24
  • @240 As I said, this could take an awful lot of research. lbf has given a concrete set of references; these are way away from being a complete answer, but are more acceptable here than 'suggest[ions about] its early usages [by] Etymonline'. Hopefully, nearer hits will follow. May 23, 2019 at 14:34
  • +1. This is a good start for an answer. May 26, 2019 at 19:42

With an accepted answer, I allow myself to post another, focusing less on usage in English print and more on generic etymology.

It was established in accepted answer that 'smear' stains and it doesn't require filthy substances to be bad for reputation. A reputation needs to be kept clean.

You can get (rightful) smear from connection with shady persons or organizations, but if there is a smear actively applied by others, it could by definition be assumed unsubstantiated. The next evolution is when the defamed claims being attacked by a "smear campaign" as a means to clean reputation stains that may very well be deserved if everything was known. News papers would likely take different positions on the same matter.

Going back to the original question, looking at synonyms shows a similar evolution when "actively applied by others".

English word 'smite' has a root meaning 'to throw' and at least in Swedish it has led to "smeta/smita" that covers a spectrum of 'throw, rub off, smear, stain'. It is today hardly ever used for a 'smear campaign' but only in passive smear.

An older word historically used for 'smear campaign' in Swedish would be "smäda". This is a very active action. It is however also a synonym only, since it doesn't seem to relate to 'smear' but instead 'small', in the sense 'belittle, diminish'. In common understanding this would be used when unsubstantiated.

  • @vectory: I believe "smäda" roots in 'small' is also the reason to discount your mention of German "Schmach" and "Schmähgedicht" in another comment.
    – JAG
    Jun 3, 2019 at 8:49

The proto-Germanic cognate of 'smear' (the noun) means fat or grease or anointing oil. The OED gives Old English

Noun 1a. Fat, grease, lard; ointment. Obsolete. c725 Corpus Gl. U 257 Unguentum, smeoru.

The corresponding verb means something like 'wipe' or 'spread', with modern cognates Yiddish 'schmeer' (to spread) or Swedish 'smorgasbord' (literally 'smear bread').

Then it is a very short metaphorical distance to 'wipe something distasteful' and then 'to give a bad mark to'. OED gives:

Verb 4c. figurative. (a) Chiefly const. with, and usually implying something base or discreditable; (b) (without const.), to attempt to discredit (a reputation, etc.) (colloquial, orig. U.S.). 1549 Coverdale et al. tr. Erasmus Paraphr. Newe Test. II. Jas. iv. f. xxxvii Why are you smeared with the vaine pleasures of this world?

(all quotes from OED which is behind a paywall/library card wall accessible)

With respect to the additional feature of 'unsubstantiated', that is a very reasonable metaphorical drift. If 'smear' originally (or rather at some point) meant simply to 'apply a negative label to', then the common behavioral practice of lying or slandering someone would add that nuance that the smear is often said without knowledge and eventually there's no need to mention that a smear is akin to unsubstantiated gossip.

  • Odd. The Norwegian word "smør" (to the American ear sounding very much like smear) means "butter", something that Norwegians don't find at all "distasteful".
    – Hot Licks
    May 27, 2019 at 20:40
  • @HotLicks 'distasteful' then, one could surmise, wasn't an integral part of the cognate that Old Norse had.
    – Mitch
    May 27, 2019 at 20:52
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    @HotLicks The leap to 'distasteful' is probably not as short as is claimed. I think 'stained' is a better pathway, even tasty butter is bad for your reputation when you have it on your face or clothing. "smøre" is the Norwegian word to look for here, would that be used as a negative campaign? In Swedish "smöra" (to fawn, butter up) is actually positive and we would use "smutskasta" (throw dirt at) as the translation for "smear campaign". Still, "smörja" (grease) is used for oiling machinery but also as a negative word (dirt). This shows very well how a word can drift from its original meaning.
    – JAG
    May 27, 2019 at 22:21
  • schmieren has only retained the negative or technical, greasy senses in North-German (Southern too I hope). Spread is instead Streich-Käse etc, the verb to a bucket of paint is streichen, thus compare perhaps Ger. Streich "a trick", Staats-Streich "Putsch", austricksen "to play a trick", Frankish estrique (attested as name of a certain game), and Ger. verstricken "to seal with a cord; to entangle in [e.g. corruption]". streichen has several other meanings, cf. strike or string[-instrument]. Strafe is of uncertain etymology by the way, not that I see a relation though.
    – vectory
    Jun 1, 2019 at 13:20
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    @vectory we should stay on topic ('butter' and Scandinavian roots in the answer was my lead, albeit already slightly astray from original question). I did not mean to cover when different words end up on similar spelling. E.g. smite seems to relate to schmeißen, not schmeiden. Etymology is hardly a clear science, though referring to published sources makes it qualified.
    – JAG
    Jun 3, 2019 at 7:41

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