“Smurf” now has four definitions — and a word error started it all

The summer’s blockbuster films keep coming every weekend, assailing us with men of iron, ogres, toy cowboys and Cheshire cats. But some cinephiles are already looking ahead to next summer, especially with the recent release of the very short trailer for “The Smurfs.”

Those famous blue cartoon characters (and their memorable theme song) sparked a thought: What the smurf is a smurf? Is there a Dictionary Smurf who can help us with a definition and origin?

Belgian illustrator Peyo, born Pierre Culliford, started drawing the characters in the late 1950s as part of a comic called “The Flute with Six Holes.” In the magical tale, the main characters Johan and Pirloit meet the Smurfs — blue-hued, no taller than three apples, and wearing Phrygian caps (the pointy white hats that are also called liberty caps).

Peyo had come up with the word for his characters accidentally. While dining with a friend, he briefly forgot the French word for “salt.” Instead, he asked for the “schtroumpf.” His friend replied, “Here’s the schtroumpf — when you are done schtroumpfing, schtroumpf it back.” They began conversing in Schtroumpf.

Their conversation not only became the inspiration for the name of Peyo’s characters, it took on its own life as the Schtroumpf’s language — a make-believe tongue that had an endless number of meanings for the word “schtroumpf.”

Johan and Pirloit were eventually cast aside, and the Schtroumpfs were turned into their own comic. Years later, the wildly successful American TV show took the name “Smurfs,” which was the Dutch rendering of “schtroumpf.”

The word “smurf” now has three meanings in English unrelated to half-naked forest gnomes narrowly escaping the grasp of an evil sorcerer. (The sorcerer in question is, of course, the evil Gargamel, whose name was lifted from a 16th-century work by François Rabelais.)

In the world of finance, a smurf is someone who launders money. In the realm of Usenet news groups, a smurf is someone with a irreverent, silly, and cute style. And a “smurf brain” is a simple-minded person.

Informally, smurf can also refer to a 1980s dance craze, an online gamer who creates a new identity, breakdancing in French, or a type of hacking attack.

All of these words take their cue from Peyo’s imagination. So the next time you forget a word for something, smurf something up for smurf’s sake.