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This is a vocabulary test of my doctoral examination. To find only one suitable answer from A, B, C, D.

I looked strange, not to say dangerous, hatless, dew-soaked, ________ with yellow mud, and holding, as if it were a baby or a bomb, a little tin pail of sand.
A. smeared
B. smudged
C. smutted
D. smirched

Well, I think all these words can be the answer, as I checked in the Longman dictionary that they all, more or less, have the same meaning of 'stained' or 'polluted' (with/by dirt)

Does anyone have better ideas?

  • I found the passage this sentence is from and there is an interesting sentence further down the page that uses "smut" in the sense of dirt... "But the smile was enough. And they smiled through their smut at me, though one of them held fast to his shovel, while the other kept his hand upon a big ugly wrench." The men were the fireman and engineer on a train, so "smut" here is most likely talking about soot from the coal-fired steam engine. – ColleenV Sep 20 '18 at 18:14
  • If you're interested in actual usage statistics: books.google.com/ngrams/… – Sam Dufel Sep 20 '18 at 19:05
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In contemporary English, a smudge is a blur or distortion of a substance which is usually already present on the surface, and the verb to smudge means to create a smudge:

When he tried to erase the word in the crossword puzzle, he smudged the page.

The verb to smear is usually to apply a substance to a surface in an imprecise or careless manner, or to wipe a substance on a surface such that it coats the surface in a blotchy and uneven manner:

He smeared his forehead with sun-block ointment and rubbed it in.

He smeared the mustard on his tie when he tried to wipe it off with a napkin.

When it drove through the mud puddle, the car splashed muddy water onto his trousers, and when he tried to wipe it off, his trousers became smeared with mud.

The verb to smut usually involves the application of soot or dark oily smoke. It is not really used nowadays to refer to a wide variety of grimy substances.

And the verb to smirch means to soil or to make something dirty, but it is most often used in a figurative sense, as in to "smirch someone's good name or reputation".

  • Thanks. it's a great answer. So which do you think is the best choice? With your answer, I will be swaggering between (C) or (D). – Dave Hwang Sep 20 '18 at 14:58
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    @DaveHwang I would choose "smeared" because we often smear mud on ourselves accidentally when we are working hard in dirty conditions. From this article: truewestmagazine.com/bob-lemmons-hearding-with-the-wind "Rain-soaked, hair smeared with mud and sagebrush, renowned mustanger Bob Lemmons used the herd’s fear of an approaching storm to drive the leaderless mares and colts into a down-range holding pen..." Smudged would probably work as well, although I think of smudges as being drier and smears being wetter. – ColleenV Sep 20 '18 at 15:03
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    @DaveHwang You can google the sentence and find out the correct word straight from the book's mouth. Further, swagger isn't typically used (figuratively or literally) the way you did; I don't know if that was a lapsus or an auto-lapsus, so please consult a dictionary to see how it's usually used. – userr2684291 Sep 20 '18 at 15:08
  • I suspect your analysis of the test-authors' intentions is correct, but "smudged with mud" (or other foreign substance) is a perfectly standard usage. The only distinction I would make between "smeared" and "smudged" in this context is that smudges are usually more discrete spots of the substance (such as would be made by just touching the smudged surface with a muddy hand, paw, or other dirty thing) whereas smearing implies that the substance has been dragged or pushed along the dirtied surface. – 1006a Sep 20 '18 at 17:48
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    @1006a. I have never heard or read the phrase "smudged with mud", though I see that it is attested (see link). I consider it grammatical, of course, but not "a perfectly standard usage". books.google.com/ngrams/… – Tᴚoɯɐuo Sep 20 '18 at 18:00
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The correct answer is smirched. However, in the US, people don't use that word. Although besmirched, metaphorically referring to someones reputation, is somewhat common.

In a casual conversation, I would have used the word smeared personally. It is not exactly correct (because you don't care that the mud is in a smear pattern, you care that the person is covered in mud), but it is close enough that a listener would understand it without even noticing a problem. Smear is also the most commonly used word of those that you listed (smudge is common, smirch is archaic, smut is not common).

Smudged with mud either doesn't make or barely makes sense (although it could with minor effort).

smut is not a word I have ever heard used as a verb.

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