A reader has asked for a post on the word genius, commenting,
It’s part of the word engineering but, in French, engineering is genie, which I associate with Aladdin’s lamp. Then, there is the genius spirit that ancient Romans associated with places.
This comment offers much to address. I’ll begin with the Latin origin of the word.
In classical religious belief, every human being was allotted a personal spirit at birth. This guiding spirit was called a genius, plural, genii.
The role of the genius was to govern a person’s fortunes, determine his character, and to conduct him out of the world at death. The Latin word comes from a Greek verb meaning “to be born, to come into being.”
This quotation from the OED show the word used in the sense of “guardian spirit”:
Let their Guardian Genii still be watchful. –N. Rowe Ambitious Step-mother.
In addition to the kind of genii assigned to individual human beings, there was the genius loci, “genius of the place.” This spirit presided over a particular place:
Watch’d by the Genius of this Royal place. Dryden –To Dr. Charleton in W. Charleton Chorea Gigantum.
The “emperor worship” that the early Christians objected to involved burning a bit of incense not to the emperor, but to the emperor’s genius:
Christians…who would die rather than fling into the altar-flame a pinch of incense to the Genius of the Emperors. –F. W. Farrar Witness of Hist.
Genius in the sense of a guiding spirit is applied to abstract nouns and to periods of history. One may speak of “the genius of Democracy” and “the Genius of the Age.” Nowadays the word genius is often replaced by the word spirit.
We’ve all seen cartoons showing a character being tempted: on one shoulder sits a little angel trying to restrain him, while on the other, a little red devil eggs him on. This depiction reflects the idea that people have not one, but two guiding genii:
(a person’s) good, evil genius: the two mutually opposed spirits (in Christian language angels) by whom every person was supposed to be attended throughout his life. Hence applied to a person who powerfully influences for good or evil the character, conduct, or fortunes of another.
Genie and genii came to be used for demons or spiritual beings in general. Arabic jinn, the word for a class of spirits that may be good or evil, came to be spelled genii in English; singular genie became the word for one of these spirits, for example, one that might be imprisoned in a bottle.
The use of genius as adjective meaning “intellectually superior” and a noun meaning “an intellectually superior person” developed in the 18th century as art critics began using genius to describe “native endowment” contrasted with “aptitudes that can be acquired by study.”
This question on a homework site illustrates how this use of genius has obscured the word’s earlier meanings:
If Hitler killed so many people, why is he called a genius?
The youngster asking this question has no doubt seen Hitler referred to as “an evil genius” by someone who did not understand the meaning of the term.
The answer given to the student’s question reflects the same confusion:
You can say Hitler was a genius because he was so good at manipulating people. He was able to get people to go along with his ideas even when they seemed to be completely crazy. Because he was able to do this, you would have to say he was a genius. Sadly, he used his great talents for one of the most evil goals ever.
Hitler might be seen as the evil genius who influenced German doctors and prison camp directors to do abominable things, but labeling him “an evil genius” without reference to another person or persons is meaningless.
The term “evil genius” refers to any person–of whatever degree of intellect–who influences another person to do evil:
The evil genius of the second half of Hitler’s career was Goebbels. –Ernst Hanfstaengel, Hitler: The Missing Years (1957).
Finally, génie is the French word for engineering, but not because it has anything to do with the word genius.
French génie means the same things that English genius does. The fact that the French word for engineering is also spelled génie is a coincidence: it’s a homonym derived from Middle French engigneour, “person who designs and constructs military works for attack and defense.”