I have a little confusion whether "smugness" implies a "low opinion of others" in contrast to a "high opinion of oneself"

I have consulted ODO and wiktionary; they showed the meaning of "Smugness" is

Smugness(noun)[ODO]: having or showing an excessive pride in oneself or one's achievements
Smugness(noun)(wiktionary): Irritatingly pleased with oneself; self-satisfied.

However please look at the following excerpt from the novel "2 States- The story of my marriage" from "Chetan Bhagat".

Krish is narrator. He is having chat with his college mate Ananya.

'So where did you stay hostel before?', She said. 'And please don't say IIT, you are doing pretty well so far.'
'What's wrong with IIT?'
'Nothing, are you from there?,' She sipped water.
'Yes, from IIT Delhi. Is that problem?'
'No,' she smiled, 'not yet.'
'Excuse me?' I said. Her smugness had reached irritating levels.

If we observe the context above, seemingly Ananya has a "low opinion" of IITians "rather than a high opinion or self pride in herself". Even though the narrator uses the word "smugness" to describe that quality. So my perticular question is, is the usage valid? Can adjectives like this be used in contrasting situations also?

  • 5
    We're getting perilously close to LitCrit here, which is Off-Topic; but... No, a smug person does not necessarily have a low opinion of others; but her high opinion of herself necessarily implies a correspondingly low-er opinion of others; and it is of course always gratifying to find one's opinions confirmed; which only increases her smugness. Dec 29, 2012 at 2:32
  • @StoneyB: I would like to understand what makes this question Off-topic. I really need to take care about my posts before posting. Can you help me understanding why this question is off-topic. I will take care for my future questions
    – Ramya
    Dec 29, 2012 at 2:38
  • 2
    Literary Criticism is specifically excluded here - see the FAQ. And this is on thin ice because while the meaning of "smug" is definitely On Topic, seeing what's going on in this particular passage involves a measure of character analysis - LitCrit. Dec 29, 2012 at 2:53
  • 2
    No: what I mean is that analysis of character, plot, and other literary elements (which are by definition expressed in language) is Off Topic. But purely linguistic analysis of the language which occurs in literature - including novels, plays, poetry, lyrics - is On Topic. Dec 29, 2012 at 3:03
  • 1
    @Ramya: I don't want to seem awkward here, but I think it's not "perilously close" - it is LitCrit (which StoneyB's first comment answers well enough). Perusing a few dictionary definitions should make the core sense of smug clear (M-W:highly self-satisfied). You can work out for yourself whether in this specific context that implies she looks down on others, or whether she's simply glowing with (undeserved, in the opinion of the narrator) pride in herself. Dec 29, 2012 at 3:39

5 Answers 5


So my perticular question is, is the usage valid? Can adjectives like this be used in contrasting situations also?

Yes, we do that from time-to-time, particularly in conversation. In other-side-of-the-coin contexts, words are often used in ways that don't fit their precise definitions. For example:

  • We may say we hate something, when we really mean we dislike it:
    I hate how my shoe keeps coming untied!
  • We may say someone is going slow, when they are really just not going fast:
    I can't wait to pass this old man; he's driving so slow! [even while driving 32 in a 35 zone]
  • We may say something was a stupid thing to do, when it was really careless:
    I left my lunchbox at home – that was stupid.
  • We may say something is spooky, when it is really unexplained:
    It was spooky how that program just crashed for no reason.
  • We may say someone is crazy, when they are really just doing something unusual:
    You keep your socks in the middle drawer? That's crazy!
  • We may say that something was lame, when it was really just uninspired:
    Boy, Manchester played a lame game last night.
  • We may say that someone was smug, when they really were disdainful:
    She seemed really smug when she found out I only got a 72 on the test.

In short, you've located an instance of a word being used like that, where it seems to stretch its strict definition – but I think no one except the keenest editors would have raised an eyebrow at that usage, and even they might let it slide.

  • All the same, "smug, when they really were disdainful" is a stretch that rightly belongs more on literary technique than lexical definition. In the lexical domain, smug # disdainful.
    – Kris
    Dec 29, 2012 at 5:14
  • 1
    I can't agree with this answer. There's no reason to suppose smugness can't co-exist with disdain, since they frequently are components of a "single" attitude. In OP's citation, either or both concepts could be explicitly mentioned, and it's misleading to suggest the former might somehow be questioned by an editor who would accept the latter. The writer writes, the editor just checks for actual mistakes (which this one obviously isn't). Dec 29, 2012 at 5:22
  • @FumbleFingers: I hate it when you leave comments like that! (Not really; see my first example above). Actually, I appreciate it – I knew this answer was somewhat tenuous even as I was composing it, so I'm glad a couple people voiced contrary views. I think my answer here might make some interesting points to consider about usages, and hyperbole, and words that are often “components of a ‘single’ attitude,” but it's hardly definitive.
    – J.R.
    Dec 29, 2012 at 10:40
  • @J.R.: I couldn't possibly take issue with any of your first 6 examples - they're all clear-cut cases of "stretching the meaning". I think there's no doubt we agree smugness and disdain are at least potentially distinct attitudes. But I'd say that in the real world, both OP's Ananya, and your test competitor, could be smug and/or disdainful. In the world of fiction (and hypothetical examples! :) we should assume the writer has the final say. If he says she's smug, that's good enough for me. I hate (really, I mean it!) stuck-up bitches anyway! :) Dec 29, 2012 at 15:15

Not sure why you are asking about the definition when you've already found it at the sites you cite. This does seem LitCrit in nature.

In essence you are asking if the usage of the word, with its known definition, is suitable in the text. Using the word "smugness" in this context totally changes the tone of the conversation. Without it Ananya could be simply concerned about some other factor, such as travel time or weather conditions. With it, Ananya suddenly changes in character, and when I read the text again her "smugness" comes not because she thinks she is better, and Knish is lower, but because she accurately guessed at his origin. In this case she is smug because she could figure out where Knish came from. But your question suggests Ananya is also looking down on Knish, in which case the rest of the text either already makes that clear, or will. In which case "smugness" is not the word you want to use here.

  • "This does seem LitCrit in nature." -- And then, you have gone on to do the same. That is clearly off-topic on ELU.
    – Kris
    Dec 29, 2012 at 13:45
  • The question hasn't been closed yet so clearly not off-topic. You may notice I answered the question too in the last line. @Kris, are you going to contribute to the discussion, or just crit?
    – Shane
    Dec 30, 2012 at 15:30
  • There's no 'discussion' -- this is a Q&A site, not a forum. We don't 'discuss'.
    – Kris
    Dec 31, 2012 at 6:12
  • Then what is going in the comments? I understand what this site is about. So far you haven't answered the OPs question. Focus Kris.
    – Shane
    Dec 31, 2012 at 9:01
  • @Shane Comments are temporary notes. Use comments to request that the OP clarify the Q or A and to offer helpful editing suggestions. Do not use comments to post answers, cheers and jeers, or as a forum. For more information please see “EL&U Privileges: Comment”. If you would like to discuss the comment privilege further please drop in any time at the EL&U Chat.
    – MetaEd
    Jan 17, 2013 at 4:42

No matter what the real possibilities of usage for smugness could be, in the given context the word implies just what the dictionaries say. The author has clarified exceedingly well: she smiled + irritating levels —> "Irritatingly pleased with oneself".

A certain reader may understand it otherwise from the broader context, but that is beyond grammar and usage. In that case, the question may well be asked on writersSE.

The answer is, therefore, No.


Irrespective of the text: no, smugness does not automatically imply thinking less of others.

Smugness is about how the smug person feels about themself. While that might be irritating to people around them, that's not really part of the implication either; you can be smug all by yourself without anyone else being aware of the fact.

To be smug is simply to be inordinately pleased with yourself about something. That may irritate other people. If you're specifically pleased about out-thinking someone else, then you may also give them the impression that you think they're inferior to you, but that's entirely beside the point; you're smug because you're giddy over your achievement.


Ananya is not behaving with overt smugness, because she is not drawing attention to her own achievements directly. She is even trying to mask her contempt with a tattered facade of "graceful" comments toward her victim, Krish, who might have entertained thoughts not captured in the dialogue:

  • You're doing pretty well so far ... Really?
  • Nothing [wrong with it] ... Are you sure?
  • No problem yet .... Why can't I believe you?

This purest of the pure Tamil Brahmin girl is behaving as if the entire royal family suddenly died and left her queen. Apparently she had earned the right to behave that way, being "rated the best girl by popular vote at IIMA," but her attitude is anything but royal. Her not-so-subtle contempt for people she perceives as below her implies smugness.

Because truly small people have a bad habit of trying to make themselves look better by making others look worse, contempt works like a semantic back door for smugness.

The history of smug may shed some light on the dynamic between these characters:

1550s, "trim, neat, spruce, smart," possibly an alteration of Low German smuk "trim, neat,"
from Middle Low German smücken "to adorn" (originally "to dress," secondary sense of words meaning "to creep or slip into"),
from the same source as smock.
The meaning "having a self-satisfied air" is from 1701, an extension of the sense of "smooth, sleek" (1580s), which was commonly used of attractive women and girls.
etmonline.com, emphasis added

In a beauty pageant, the "most stylish" young lady would naturally intimidate her "least stylish" opponents. (I say stylish because beauty tends to be an arbitrary cultural designation.) In the sixteenth century she would have been called smug simply because she was well dressed, but after 450 years, that is no longer the issue proceeding from smug. Now, this stylish girl would tend to be labeled smug in one of two situations:

  1. If she uses her stylish appearance to cast an unfavorable shadow on her competitors, she is smug.
  2. If her competitors perceive her stylish appearance as an unfavorable shadow on themselves, they might call her smug--even if she is behaving quite modestly.

Krish, the downcast Punjabi "commoner", uses smug to describe her perception of the uppity Ananya. The insulting behavior she displays in the OP is comes across artlessly veiled smugness:

Implying excessive pride in oneself or one's achievements by degrading others or their achievements--all while trying to ingratiate oneself with feigned compliments.

The page before the excerpt, and the page after, amplified her subtle attitude into blatant smugness as this segment suggests:

She laughed. 'I didn't say I am a practicing Tam Brahm. But you should know that I am born into the purest of pure upper caste communities ever created. What about you, commoner?

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