“Congenial” vs. “Genial”

By Mark Nichol

What’s the difference between congenial and genial? They both derive from that Latin term that also developed into genius, but their meanings are mostly distinct.

Genial means “friendly” or “sympathetic,” or “mild”; it also describes someone who displays or is marked by genius, but that is a rare usage. Genial can refer to a person (“She has a genial personality”) or to an inanimate object or phenomenon (“The weather was genial yesterday”).

Although congenial can be synonymous with genial, the connotation is usually one of having a pleasant and/or sociable attitude (“He is a congenial host”) or being harmonious or of a kindred spirit (“Their congenial interest in the matter may help them cooperate”).

Writers must take care not to introduce an extraneous letter to produce one of two words that, though distantly related to genial and congenial, have nothing to do with the terms — or with each other: Genital refers to the sexual organs, and congenital usually refers to diseases or unhealthy psychological features.

A congenital physical condition is one that dates or exists from birth or is acquired during gestation and not through heredity; one can also describe someone as having a congenital fear of or obsession about something. People are also sometimes described as being congenital in some aspect of their nature — for example, a congenital liar is someone who is habitually deceitful.

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3 Responses to ““Congenial” vs. “Genial””

  • Dale A. Wood

    This is an interesting article about “genial”, “congenial”, “congenital”, etc.
    Something that is worth noting is that “das Genie” is the German noun (a neuter one) for “genius”. “Genie” also means a wizard or a whiz.
    I will leave it up to you to find out about “genius” in Dutch, French, Spanish, Italian, etc.

    In German, “der Flaschengeist” is the kind of a “genie in a bottle” in the tales of Arabian mythology. “Flasch” is the German word for “bottle” and it is obviously related to the English word “flask”. “Geist” means “spirit” and it is obviously related to the English word “ghost”. Hence “the ghost in a bottle”.

    I know German, and I wish that I had found time to study Dutch, which is a language somewhere in between German and English. Also, Frisaian, the language of the northern Netherlands (mostly on islands) is even closer to English because Frisian was related to the Anglo-Saxon-Jute of a thousand years ago, and to Danish.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    An interesting article would be on all of the English words that are derived from Danish – the language of the Vikings who invaded southern Scotland and northern England long ago. England has far more Danish words in it that it does Celtic words. (The Celtic words are mostly the names of places in Britain and Ireland.)

    To start off with, all of these words came from Danish (including pronouns, which is very unusual for any language): they, them, thier, theirs, these, those, sky, ski, skin, skull, and just about any word that you can name that starts with “sk”.

    In Modern German, and presumably in Anglo-Saxon, the word for “sky” is “Himmel”, with is related to the English word “heaven”. Also, the word for “skin” is “Haut”, with is related to the noun “hide”. The German, Scandinavian, and English words for “skull” are more closely-related because the German word for “skull” is “Schädel” and the Norse one is “skoal”.

    If you ever meet or read about a German with the surname “Schädel”, that literally means “skull”. I believe that this name has shown up in some films about World War I and WW II – with some German military officer named “Schädel”. I haven’t found a real, historical one on the Internet, e.g. Hauptmann Schädel = “Captain Schädel”.

  • Helen

    An interesting article which points up, once agin, the differences on each side of “the pond”.
    In my experience, in the UK, we would refer to a genial host rather than congenial, and would never refer to an inanimate object e.g. the weather as genial.
    Two countries divided by a single language indeed!

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