The adjective sharp is colloquially used in the superlative, in various phrases of the form the sharpest —— in the ——, denoting a pre-eminently intelligent or perceptive person.
—Cf. also the phrase you’re so sharp you’ll cut yourself.
Those phrases usually occur in negative contexts, as not the sharpest —— in the ——, indicating that a person is not very intelligent or perceptive, especially in comparison to others.
These are, in chronological order, some of the earliest occurrences of the sharpest —— in the —— that I have found:
1-: From A Cry of Angels (New York: Atheneum, 1974), by the U.S. novelist Jeff Fields (born 1938):
“I don’t think Jayell would have got in half the trouble he did,” said Mrs. Porter, “if he wasn’t so all-fired cocky. He always knowed he was the sharpest tack in the carpet, and expected folks to take notice of that.”
2-: From Light at end is fading, by Howie Carr, published in the Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts, USA) of Wednesday 16th August 1989—the following is about Allan Robert McKinnon (1930-2019), who was then Chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority:
McKinnon, a former state senator from Weymouth who has never been known as the sharpest knife in the drawer.
3-: From LaMountain in line to head City Council, by Daniel Bellow, Berkshire Eagle Staff, published in The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts, USA) of Tuesday 5th December 1989:
PITTSFIELD—Imelda Cornelio LaMountain appears certain to become president of the City Council, the first woman ever to attain that position.
LaMountain’s rival for the Council presidency [is] Ward 4 Councilor Bernard J. Goclowski.
Councilor at large Peter G. Arlos said he still supports Goclowski because “although he may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, at this time he’s the ideal candidate because he has a rapport with the mayor.”
4-: From Big Nate, by the U.S. cartoonist Lincoln Peirce (born 1963), published in the Desert Dispatch (Barstow, California, USA) of Monday 8th July 1991:
– I THINK IT’S GREAT THAT ART IS YOUR HOBBY, NATE!
– HOBBY? ART IS MY LIFE! WHEN DA VINCI PAINTED THE “MONA LISA,” WAS THAT A HOBBY? WHEN MICHEL-ANGELO PAINTED THE SISTINE CHAPEL, WAS THAT A HOBBY? WHEN RUSTY SIENNA PAINTED “UNICORNS TOASTING MARSHMALLOWS IN PARADISE,” WAS THAT A HOBBY?
– ANOTHER ATTEMPT AT A FATHER-SON CHAT BITES THE DUST.
– NO OFFENSE, DAD, BUT WHEN IT COMES TO ART, YOU’RE NOT EXACTLY THE SHARPEST TOOL IN THE SHED!
5-: From the column Zoë Heller in America, by the British journalist and novelist Zoë Heller (born 1965), published in The Independent (London, England) of Sunday 10th July 1994:
In the loos, the gorgon-lady who guards the basins and makes sure people don’t go wild with the complimentary hairspray took one look at me and shrieked, “You haven’t got your shoes on!” We both stared down at my shiny red toenails. […] “Yes, I left my shoes at the table. They were rather uncomfortable,” I said in a sturdily amiable way. “You came to the bathroom without shoes,” she said, still shrieking. Obviously this woman wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. I was beginning to find her rather tiresome.
6-: From the column Sports Spectrum, by Phil Gianficaro, published in The Citizens’ Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, USA) of Friday 24th February 1995:
Scabs should stay on deck
Dear replacement player:
Suppose Harry, the next door neighbor, is found cuddled up to your girlfriend Sally when you return home after your unprincipaled behind is shown the door when the Major League Baseball strike is settled.
No big deal, right? It shouldn’t be, the way I see it. You left her available for something you believed in and somebody took your place.
The same way the real major leaguers left for something they believed in and you took their place.
You see, Harry’s missing a few teeth, scratches himself publicly in unmentionable places and, quite frankly, isn’t the sharpest tool in the box. Can’t hit the curveball.
7-: In Not to insult your intelligence, but…, published in The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kansas, USA) of Sunday 9th July 1995, Bob Getz listed many phrases indicating that a person is not very intelligent or perceptive, among which not the sharpest tack in the pack:
How lovely, how lively, our language, our lingo.
We should be proud. We should be grateful, even gleefully appreciative.
What wonderful way-out ways we have to express ourselves. What wonderful way-out ways we have to insult the bejeebers out of each other, mock our best enemies and worst friends, and just generally describe our fellow humans who may not exactly be the brightest bulb in the hardware store, the sharpest tack in the pack or the most finely tuned banjo at the barn dance.
A few weeks ago I asked readers if they could add to a short list of colorfully nasty phrases that are used to indicate, shall we say, intellectual sluggishness or general mental fogginess.
Talk about hitting the jackpot. I expected a few amusing lines. I got dozens of wondrous ones.
The No. 1 line from many readers: He’s a few bricks shy of a load.
Second most often mentioned: His elevator doesn’t run to the top.
From both Roger Shinny of Fredonia and Gloria Summers, Wichita: The light is on but nobody’s home.
Now we come to Dave Means of Wichita. Dave knows insults:
■ He’s a tire short of a full rotation. He’s a few leagues under the sea. His pizza’s short on toppings. He’s a few swirls short of a full flush. His umbrella’s not fully open.
■ His arrow misses the bull’s-eye He’s sailing with a bent mast. His copier’s out of toner. His ski lift doesn’t ride to the top. He’s painting with a dry brush. He’s a few inches short of a pound.
George Gird of Wichita was heard from with a winner: There’s a ground wire disconnected somewhere.
And Ed Redwine of Augusta checked in impressively: His dipstick doesn’t touch his oil.
Come we now to the obviously incomparable Petunia of Wichita.
Petunia, who clearly has an ear for an insult, said she’s been collecting these lines for years.
To squeeze hers all in, I’ll list them in threes…
■ He has a loose cog. He’s got one wheel in the sand. He’s not playing with a full deck.
■ Her porch light’s out. She’s like a ball in high weeds. She doesn’t have both oars in the water.
■ He’s driving with one headlight. He’s not hitting on all cylinders. He’s 12 shy of a dozen.
■ She’s not driving with her brights on. Her racket needs re-stringing. Her pilot light is burning on low flame.
■ He’s not playing with a full keyboard. He’s running on empty. He doesn’t have all four chairs under the table.
■ Your bread ain’t baked. He’s one pancake short of a stack. He’s a couple sandwiches short of a picnic.
■ He has some loose wiring upstairs. He’s about two bubbles off of plumb. He’s missing a few dots on his dice.
■ She’s not knitting with both needles. She has a few shingles missing from her roof. She’s not wrapped too tightly.
■ His cheese has slid off his cracker. His belt doesn’t go through all the loops. His hat is on too tight.
■ He’s missing a few buttons. He’s fishing without bait. He’s three floats short of a parade.
■ His bow is unstrung. His stairs don’t reach the attic. He’s been in one too many scrimmages without a helmet.
■ Nice house, nobody home. Half the pickets are missing from his fence. Somebody blew out his pilot light.
■ He has a knot in his kite string. He has too much motor for his axle. He wasn’t present at roll call.
■ He’s running two quarts low. He’s driving in reverse. He lost a few shingles in the last storm.
■ There are no occupants in the penthouse. There are no beans in his pod. You look in his eyes and you can tell that nobody’s driving.
Petunia concluded, “My personal favorite, from an episode of ‘Taxi,’ is…”
■ Her antenna doesn’t pick up every channel.