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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.”

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5 thoughts on “Genius”

  1. Note: “the Genius of the Age.” Nowadays the word genius is often replaced by the word “spirit”.

    There is a word that means the same thing that has been adopted into English from Modern German. It is “Zeitgeist”, which translates directly as “the spirit of the times”. Some times that have had notable Zeitgeists in the U.S.A. and Canada include the 1920s (the Roaring Twenties); the postwar period that followed World War II – running from late 1945 through about 1952; and the 1960s, with its many social movements in music, the “hippie” generation, the War in Vietnam, the Race to the Moon (U.S.A. vs. U.S.S.R.), and the culture of marijuana, LSD, “downers”, and “uppers”.

    Of course, the 1980s had its own Zeitgeist, which I will express as “Greed is Good” – from “Gordon Gecko’s” speech in the film WALL STREET. (Michael Douglas won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for playing Gordon Gecko, and that was his key speech.)

    There have been other kinds of Zeitgeists (spirits of the times) not nailed to particular decades, such as the Age of Nuclear Power, the Space Age, the Age of the Computer (and especially the P.C.), the age of Telecommunications, and going back somewhat further, the Industrial Revolution. Of course, the word “Zeitgeist” did not exist yet in English back then.

  2. Speaking of another German word in this area, the German word for “engineer” is “Ingenieur”, which was derived from the French was that is mentioned above. This word refers to the well-educated engineer: an electrical, mechanical, chemical, or aerospace engineer, for example. In most European countries, these engineers have gone to college for five or six years, and many have the equivalent of a master’s degree in the U.S.A., Canada, Australia, Japan, etc. Six years was how long it took me to earn my B.S. and M.S. in electrical engineering.

    In German, there is also a native German word “Techniker”, and it has specialties like “Elektrotechniker”. For some decades now, a German, Austrian, or Swiss Techniker has needed a four-year degree, and he/she is the equivalent of what we call an “engineering technologist” or a very high-level technician. This is an education with more hands-on applications and somewhat less engineering theory.

    Now for homonyms, we also have the other kind of engineer, the people who run railroad locomotives. “Casey Jones” of the American folk song was a railroad engineer.** There are also “stationary engineers”, and those were the ones who ran steam engines that did not move: the ones in factories and old-style electric power plants.
    (Most modern power plants use steam turbines or gas turbines, which
    are simpler, more powerful, and more reliable than steam engines. Diesel engines are also used for making electricity and powering locomotives.)
    I object to the careless journalists, mostly from overseas, who write of “railway drivers”. No, locomotives have “engineers”, and they have had them for over 160 years. Furthermore, the country with the most miles of railroad tracks and the most trains is the United States of America, which has far more miles of tracks than do Russia, Canada, China, India, France, or Germany. We’re the leader, so why not stick with our terminology?
    I cannot guarantee this, but I believe that North America (the U.S.A., Canada, and Mexico) has more miles of railroad tracks than the rest of the world put together, and more traffic on those tracks, too. Lest anyone gets confused, the primary use of railroads is for freight traffic, and not for passengers.

  3. **Speaking of the American railroad ENGINEER Casey Jones and the folk song about it. The chorus of this song goes:

    “Casey Jones – mounted to the cabin.
    Casey Jones – with his orders in his hand.
    Casey Jones – mounted to the cabin,
    On his farewell trip to the Promised Land.”

    This song is about the loyal engineer Casey Jones and how he died in a train wreck. For more information, look it up on the Internet.
    I have had a love of songs about the railroads (and about airplanes) for a long time, and the names of some of the other songs about railroads, there are “The Orange Blossom Special” (which was recorded by Johnny Cash, by the way), “The Rock Island Line”, “The City of New Orleans” (by Arlo and Woodie Guthrie).
    Johnny Cash also wrote and recorded the song “Folsom Prison Blues”, which starts out
    “I hear the train a coming. It’s rolling around the bend.
    And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when.
    I’m stuck in Folsom Prison…” (a penitentiary in California)

    This one was recorded for the record album “Johnny Cash Live at Folsom Prison”. I have never seen that place, and I don’t ever want to! However, I did ride a ferryboat in San Francisco Bay, and I got a good look at the San Quentin Penitentiary. No closer !

  4. Can you address the use of genius to mean ingenious? It’s one of my biggest pet peeves (“This film is genius!”), but the Oxford Online Dictionary says it can be used informally as an adjective for “very clever or ingenious.” That doesn’t make it correct, right?

  5. Good question, Cody. Actually genius and ingenious are not as closely related as words as one would probably assume, although they do come ultimately from the same root. You are correct to be suspicious of the dictionary both in this instance and in general. The fact that genius is used where ingenious really fits does not make it correct, merely common. Undoubtedly the use of genius in that way comes from confusing it with ingenious. Other birds do sound like ducks, actually.

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