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Lexical Investigations: Genius

genius, einstein, john milton, apple genius barWhen did people shift from having a genius to being a genius? Starting in the 14th century, a genius denoted a guardian spirit, and someone with extraordinary talent was said to have a genius, because his or her gift was thought to be the result of some supernatural help. For example, in a treatise on epic poetry from 1695, the author offers, “That Milton had a Genius equal to Spencer’s…” This sense comes from the Latin gignere, which means “to produce,” and it lives on in our vocabulary with genies.

In the mid-1600s, however, the meaning began to shift, and people began to call someone with natural ability a genius, someone with an exceptional natural capacity of intellect, not necessarily just a gift from a supernatural friend. An early record of this usage is in John Milton’s Eikonoclastes when he writes, “to unsettle the conscience of any knowing Christian, if he could ever aim at a thing so hopeless, and above the genius of his Cleric Elocution.” By the end of the 17th century, this usage was common, as in this essay from a 1693 edition of The Bee: “…if your mind is delighted with the genuine touches of nature, which constitutes the true test of genius in poetical composition.” This may also have been caused by some confusion with the Latin root ingenium, meaning “inborn qualities,” and which gives us words like “ingenious” and “engine.”

According to Google nGram, genius peaked in usage in the late 1700s and has been declining steadily since.

Popular References:

Baby Genius Stores
Baby Geniuses (1999 Movie)
Apple Genius Bar
Phrase: evil genius
Bud Light’s “Real Men of Genius” commercials, songs

Relevant Quotations:

“And what is a Genius? God of generation . . . that the Genius is the reasonable soule, peculiar in each man.” —Saint Augustinus (A.D. 354–430), St. Augustine of the Citie of God, 1610

“The sacrifice that was performed unto the Genius was wine, and flowers.” —Thomas Godwyn, Romanae historiae anthologia recognita et aucta: An English exposition of the Roman antiquities, 1680

“Visit the grounds frequently and observe what has been wrought out there as the result of skill and genius in the great field of electricity during the past few years.” —American Institute of Electrical Engineers, Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, Volume 15, 1898


Read our previous post about the word hokey.

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.

39 Comments

  1. David Figgo -  January 5, 2014 - 7:02 pm

    For those confusing latin derived word “Genius” with another word of Arabic root “Al-Jinn”, there’s A DINSTICT ENGLISH WORD FOR THAT: “GENIE”..

    So, guys, do not confuse “Genius” with “genie”…

    Reply
  2. Genius quotes -  July 21, 2013 - 1:56 am

    An awesome quote by Albert Einstein : “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

    Reply
  3. Dhaniah -  July 16, 2013 - 5:57 am

    hmmm… very lazy to read this long article

    Reply
  4. Nael Hamdi -  July 15, 2013 - 2:34 pm

    It was evolved definitely from the Arabic root ” Al-Jinn” . . Please do your homework before you do any more cyber fumbles.

    Reply
  5. Jon Skalski -  July 15, 2013 - 11:14 am

    I agree with Ricky. Elizabeth Gilbert makes this point nicely in this engaging talk on this very subject of “genius” in terms of having a genius or being a genius:

    http://blog.ted.com/2009/02/09/elizabeth_gilbe/

    This TED talk is the reason I was interested in this post.

    Reply
  6. Fred -  July 15, 2013 - 9:24 am

    Einstein’s mother had a genius.

    Reply
  7. Amit -  July 14, 2013 - 11:26 pm

    Author Elizabeth Gilbert mention this in her TED talk and i think it was really fascinating how the usage of genius in two different ways has a lot of affect on our psychology! If having a genius than being a genius keeps us sane, then why not try it! Check out the video on Youtube.

    Reply
  8. Aaron -  July 14, 2013 - 8:32 pm

    @Zakari Hasmiu, no it does not. The word ‘genius’ comes from the latin word ‘gigno,’ or ‘ genui,’ which means “to create, or to bring into being.” Latin language comes from the Latin people which settled northern Italy about 5,000 years ago, and Greek was a language that greatly influenced Latin. Both of these languages were much older than arabic.

    Reply
  9. Dmitry -  July 14, 2013 - 10:44 am

    Interesting information, but Einstein was NOT a genius.
    Merely a sordid plagiarist who stole the relativity theory from Henri Poincaré – French mathematician and physicist whose lectures Einstein attended.

    Reply
  10. Buckie -  July 14, 2013 - 8:35 am

    Those who think Einstein was a genius have NO CLUE who Tesla was – a real genius. If you want to learn about Tesla, there is a new book out in Barns and Nobel regarding Tesla written by David Kent. Very nicely done!! I recommend it!

    Reply
  11. Sharvari -  July 13, 2013 - 8:02 pm

    Yes, I agree with you @Ricky.

    Reply
  12. farzaneh -  July 13, 2013 - 5:25 am

    shiring

    Reply
  13. Sheridan -  July 13, 2013 - 1:17 am

    I’m all for returning to the old usage of this word. Our current usage puts way too much emphasis on consciousness as a property of the individual, something he owns. Whereas the earlier idea of genius is much more in keeping with where studies on consciousness are leading us now – we don’t ‘have’ it in our brains, our brains (and bodies) plug into it, rather like a field of energy. The borders between genius & madness have been very thin for many artistic genii because both states eschew clear definitions between individuals and this field of consciousness. Also, I’m always intrigued with all the word shifts we see happening in the 1600′s as science takes over from god and ‘genii loci’ becomes inanimate matter.

    Reply
  14. Sophie -  July 12, 2013 - 12:13 pm

    sooo awesome

    Reply
  15. wjrhalyn -  July 12, 2013 - 5:29 am

    Hmmm? That sentence “That Milton had a Genius equal to Spencer’s…” does NOT necessarily infer the presence of a supernatural entity, or something owned, as if he’d written instead “That Milton had a dog [or house or ring] equal to Spencer’s…”.
    The example phrase could also be analogous to plugging in any QUALITY you might wish to include, such as “That Milton had an intelligence [or cleverness or temper] equal to Spencer’s…”.
    Hence, the author of THAT phrase could just as easily have been using “genius” as an inherent quality rather than something “owned” or possessed, such as a form of genie-like spirit or benificent spectre.
    In fact, reading that example over several times, one cannot help but agree that “genius” is used there in a form interchangeable with any other human QUALITY (try “wit” or “charm” or “skill” or “judgment” instead… the phrase works just as well), not necessarily a possessive or possessed spirit.

    And, per the comment by “Ricky”, while genius can be often considered a blessing or curse (subjectively) depending on how it is used, it indeed CAN be learned or acquired… not easily, but with time, practice and genuine desire.
    A HAMMER is simply an inert object, but can be used to build a house or kill a person; the “blessing/curse” thing is just how it is INTERPRETED, depending on how it has been used.
    Likewise with “genius”, it is neither blessing nor curse… it is a facile edge of added intelligence achieved through exercise of mind that exists to be used according to the whims of those who elect to develop it within themselves.
    The lazy, indolent couch potato leading an education-free lifestyle generally fails to be regarded as genius, because they (whatever their inherent IQ might be) do not achieve even the modicum of intelligence and elocution required to EXPRESS their thoughts, however clever, in an intelligent or even coherent manner.
    Whereas the dedicated, but lower-IQ, child who persists in reading and memorizing and taking a curious interest in the world and technology all around them WILL at some time come to be regarded as a genius. They will have acquired so much information and intelligence in their field(s) of interest, that others will respect their views and opinions, and eventually come to them for information and advice.
    Even Edison was attributed as saying something to the effect that “genius is 10% inspiration, and 90% perspiration”. It’s the EFFORT that counts, and effort leads to change.
    We are all free to elect our paths in life; choosing from amongst whatever circumstances that we are placed in, to choose how we will react to them. Free will and all that. It is also a measure of the DESIRE we bring to make those changes. Yes, someone CAN “choose” to become a genius, or something very near it, but must be prepared to put in their 10,000 hours. (Read Malcom Gladwell’s “Outliers” for further explanation of the “hours” reference.)

    Reply
  16. Quotes -  July 11, 2013 - 11:42 pm

    Albert Einstein once said: “When I examine myself and my methods of thought I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”

    Reply
  17. Brian Davids -  July 11, 2013 - 9:58 pm

    Why must it Zakari. Jinn isn’t even what you’re claiming it to be. Plus it’s a Latin originating word. Seriously, you shouldn’t make such silly statements of fiction.

    Reply
  18. Daniel -  July 11, 2013 - 6:47 pm

    @Ricky: Well, I “am” a homosapien, but I can’t exactly choose to be or not to be (though that is apparently the question). Should we then say that I am in possession of a homosapien? That seems to be at odds with certain human rights initiatives, wouldn’t you say? :-)

    Reply
  19. Daniel -  July 11, 2013 - 6:44 pm

    Interesting… I wonder if this has implications for the origin of “genie” and “djinn.”

    Reply
  20. brujaja -  July 11, 2013 - 3:25 pm

    Zakari Hasmiu: You are correct. Our modern use of the term “genie” to mean a spirit (in a lamp or bottle) with magical powers is the result of a conflation between the latin “genius” and the Arabic “Al-Jinn.” Italy and the Middle East are a short distance away from each other, across the Mediterranean. We have many things in common.

    Ricky: I’m with you. It makes perfect sense, I agree completely.

    Reply
  21. Codie -  July 11, 2013 - 1:55 pm

    Wow only two people care about Albert Einstein or the topic? I thought it was quite interesting. I mean is he a genius or does he have a genius like it says? Whats the difference? I mean either way he got his gift from God. So wouldn’t he have a genius therefore making him one? Seems right to me.
    Read more at http://hotword.dictionary.com/genius/#gI7fJXXGGm2VtBPq.99

    Reply
  22. Augustus Melchizedek Roberts -  July 11, 2013 - 1:54 pm

    Sorry to burst your bubble Ricky, but you are the genius or “being” in the phrase “human being”, scientifically known as a photon, who atomically-encoded and bonded Our brilliant original idea into your visible, but dense human form. I trust you are aware that every visible form in the universe, including human form, is the form of an idea. The now willfully (http://chn.ge/11DuoDn) absent, but MAIN academic discipline of reverting (E = mc2) the dense biochemical compound which constitutes your human form, back to its pre-molecular or photonic wave frequency, permits your (genius’) continued distortion-free function through your now enlightened human form. Why? because these two dimensions of Our (your) Mind are now operating at the same frequency. Your description of this necessity as a blessing and a curse, is due to the distortion of Our brilliant original idea by some of its dense human forms, who self-destructively believe that they can profit indefinitely by maintaining this age-old conflict between these two dimensions of Our Mind. Check out the history of money at http://www.xat.org The grace-period allotted for ignorance of this necessity has expired, however, confirmed by two living testimonials of that fact, in the persons of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. In other words, Ricky, Our (your) genius or photon who literally condensed into, shaped and holds together the atoms of his human form (s), has resumed his lawful duty of making Our original idea visible. Watch with amusement as the dense ones run for cover from his unflinching revelation…ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. I am Melchizedek, the personification of Our original idea’s SOUND, which generated LIGHT (photons), look me up at http://vixra.org/abs/1209.0037. Peace.

    Reply
  23. Codie -  July 11, 2013 - 1:54 pm

    Wow only to people care about Albert Einstein or the topic? I thought it was quite interesting. I mean is he a genius or does he have a genius like it says? Whats the difference? I mean either way he got his gift from God. So wouldn’t he have a genius therefore making him one? Seems right to me.

    Reply
  24. Louis -  July 11, 2013 - 1:07 pm

    “Genius” I think, it has nothing to do with supernatural help, People a born Genius from time to time. There are many genius in history that were atheist (nothing to do with a blessing).

    Reply
  25. Bryan Litfin -  July 11, 2013 - 11:35 am

    Genius did not come from Arabic nor did it arise in the 14th century. It is a direct Latin word that described the spirit that empowered the noble family clans (gens), especially the emperor. Eventually there was a legal requirement that citizens worship the genius of the emperor. Genius came into early literary English as a guardian spirit because those medieval folks knew their Latin.

    Reply
  26. GingerlyWaysIsBack -  July 11, 2013 - 10:33 am

    i think theres a decision within people whether to delve into our own genious
    some will. some wont…
    the real inquiry is the potential within people and within their brain which is yet to be discovered

    Reply
  27. GingerlyWaysIsBack -  July 11, 2013 - 10:29 am

    we all have our own inner genius
    its about wheather we are capable to understand it, grasp it, and fathom its value

    Reply
  28. Jeff Popplewell -  July 11, 2013 - 9:17 am

    1680s, djen, from Arabic jinn, collective plural, “demons, spirits, angels.” The proper singular is jinni. Cf. genie. ~ Online Etymology Dictionary. Aladdin rubbed the magic lamp to summon the genie, a tutelary spirit, who granted him 3 wishes.

    Reply
  29. Terry -  July 10, 2013 - 5:08 pm

    I prefer “Near” Genius to Genius because it keeps people guessing; How Near? I know that anyone who is honest with at least himself will acknowledge in him resides both Genius & Fool. So, on average we are all equal.

    Reply
  30. Will -  July 10, 2013 - 1:31 pm

    Some are born Genius, some achieve Genius, and some have Genius thrust upon them. W. Flexspeare.

    Reply
  31. Katie Lovely -  July 10, 2013 - 12:43 pm

    ALBERT EINSTEIN is held up as “a rare genius,” who drastically changed the field of theoretical physics. However, using the technique known as ‘The Often-Repeated Lie=Truth,’ he has been made an idol to young people, and his very name has become synonymous with genius.

    THE TRUTH, HOWEVER, IS VERY DIFFERENT. Einstein was an inept and moronic person, who could not even tie his own shoelaces; he contributed NOTHING ORIGINAL to the field of quantum mechanics, nor any other science. On the contrary—Einstein stole from his wife, Mileva Maric!( Do your research don’t believe everything you hear!Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance!

    Reply
  32. Ricky -  July 10, 2013 - 1:00 am

    Lets bring it back to the old ways. To say a man has genius is better because a genius truly is a blessing and a curse. Nobody just chooses to be a genius one day, nor can a man with genius decide to be normal. It compels you; genius requires you to go out and be phenomenal. Genius cannot just be achieved, therefore it seems odd to attribute intellectual prowess to the person instead of the genius that drives him.

    Reply
  33. Zakari Hasmiu -  July 9, 2013 - 5:58 pm

    “Genius” if it means guardian spirit, must have evolved from the Arabic root ” Al-Jinn” meaning spirit.

    Reply

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