Whose Little Brainchild Are You?

By Maeve Maddox

A reader sent me this example of the use of brainchild:

According to Tesla’s brainchild, Elon Musk, demand for stationary storage batteries has skyrocketed to the point that an expansion of the gigafactory may have to be considered before it is even built.”

Opines the reader, “Either Nicola Tesla invented Elon Musk, or something more surreal took place.”

According to a Wikipedia article, Elon Musk is “a South African-born, Canadian-American business magnate, engineer, inventor, and investor.” In brief, Elon Musk is a living human being.

A brainchild, on the other hand, is “the product of a person’s mind; an idea or invention that is the creation of a particular person, organization, etc.” A fictional character may be someone’s brainchild, but a human being cannot be.

The error of referring to a real person as somebody’s brainchild is widespread enough for Paul Brians to give it an entry in his Common Errors in English Usage:

Some people misuse “brainchild,” as in “Steve Jobs is the brainchild behind the iPhone.” A brainchild is not a person, but the child (product) of someone’s brain. So the iPhone is the brainchild of Steve Jobs.

Buffy Summers (the Vampire Slayer) is the brainchild of Joss Whedon. Microsoft is the brainchild of Bill Gates.

Here are some examples from the Web in which the expression is used correctly:

The Kentucky Derby was the brainchild of Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. He was the grandson of William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame).

Jack Kimble is the Congressman from California’s faux 54th District. In reality he is the brainchild of a Chicago school teacher. 

The concept of evolution by natural selection is sometimes referred to as Charles Darwin’s brainchild.

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2 Responses to “Whose Little Brainchild Are You?”

  • venqax

    Regarding Paul Brians”s comment on the direction of brainchild, I experienced a similar issue with the word *namesake*. My son was told that his uncle was his namesake, and it struck me as wrong. The online dictionary gives 2 definitions for it:

    1. a person named after another.
    2. a person having the same name as another.

    I had only ever been aware, however, of definition number one. That is, you are grandpa’s namesake– he is not yours. Definition number two, however, seems to remove that distinction and make the term bidirectional. In regard to the second definition I must say I don’t like it! but I don’t know the enough about the history or the word and its usage to say it is wrong. Brainchild, at least to my knowledge, does not suffer that lack of direction.

  • Roberta B.

    To my knowledge, there is no word in English for people who share the same first name. Some languages do have one. Many years ago, I went to Mexico with a friend to attend her brother’s wedding. I met her Uncle Bob (Beto, short for Roberto), and he greeted me in Spanish by saying we’re “tocayos.” So, there is a word for it in the Spanish spoken by Mexicans – maybe others, too. However, I’ve also been told that technically both must be the same gender. So, I think he was just trying to make me feel welcome. Anyway, I learned something.

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