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.